SAN ANTONIO — The American soldier who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas more than two months ago arrived back in the U.S. early Thursday, video appeared to show.
North Korea abruptly announced Wednesday that it would expel Pvt. Travis King. His return was organized with the help of ally Sweden and rival China, according to the White House.
While officials have said King, 23, is in good health and the immediate focus will be on caring for him and reintegrating him into U.S. society, his troubles are likely far from over.
King, who had served in South Korea, ran into the North while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18, becoming the first American confirmed to be detained in the isolated country in nearly five years. At the time, he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.
He has been declared AWOL from the Army. In many cases, someone who is AWOL for more than a month can automatically be considered a deserter.
Punishment for going AWOL or desertion can vary, and it depends in part on whether the service member voluntarily returned or was apprehended. King’s handover by the North Koreans makes that more complicated.
Video aired Thursday by a Texas news station appeared to show King walking off a plane in San Antonio. Dressed in a dark top and pants, he could be seen speaking briefly with people waiting on the tarmac. He shook hands with one before being led into a building.
Emails seeking comment were sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the Air Force and the Army.
Officials earlier said he would be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. He is expected to undergo psychological assessments and debriefings, and he will also get a chance to meet with family.
He will be in military custody throughout the process since his legal situation is complicated.
Many questions remain about King’s case, including why he fled in the first place and why the North — which has tense relations with Washington over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues — agreed to turn him over.
The White House has not addressed North Korean state media reports that King fled because of his dismay about racial discrimination and inequality in the military and U.S. society.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that King made such complaints but verifying that is impossible.
On Wednesday, Swedish officials took King to the Chinese border, where he was met by U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the Swedish ambassador to China, and at least one U.S. Defense Department official.
He was then flown to a U.S. military base in South Korea before heading to the U.S.
His detention was relatively short by North Korean standards.
Several recent American detainees had been held for over a year — 17 months in the case of Otto Warmbier, a college student who was arrested during a group tour. Warmbier was in a coma when he was deported, and later died.
North Korea has often been accused of using American detainees as bargaining chips, and there had also been speculation that the North would try to maximize the propaganda value of a U.S. soldier.
But analysts say King’s legal troubles could have limited his propaganda value, and Biden administration officials insisted they provided no concessions to North Korea to secure his release.
Lee and Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kim Tong-Hyung contributed from Seoul, South Korea.
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