How a US soldier made a mad dash into North Korea
SEOUL/WASHINGTON – United States Army Pte Travis T. King had finished serving time in detention in South Korea and was being escorted to the airport to fly home and likely face disciplinary action. But he never made it to his plane.
Instead, he passed alone through security to his departure gate and then fled, one official said. The Korea Times, citing an airport official, reported that Pte King told airline workers he could not board his flight because his passport was missing.
From there, Pte King, 23, somehow joined a civilian tour of the heavily fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing South Korea and the North, where he bolted across the border on Tuesday as American and South Korean guards shouted “Get him!” – but to no avail.
So began a bizarre odyssey that has created a fresh problem for Washington in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.
Though stopping short of branding Pte King a defector, the US military was scrambling on Wednesday to determine his fate, as well as his motive, after what officials said was a wilful, unauthorised crossing of the border that landed an active-duty American soldier in North Korean hands.
While much remains unknown, investigations by the authorities from Seoul to Washington and witness accounts have begun slowly piecing together a picture of Pte King and what transpired.
Pte King, who joined the US Army in January 2021, had served as a Cavalry Scout with the Korean Rotational Force, part of the decades-old US security commitment to South Korea. His awards include the National Defence Service Medal, the Korean Defence Service Medal and Overseas Service Ribbon.
But Pte King’s posting in South Korea was dogged by legal troubles.
A South Korean court ruling said Pte King pleaded guilty to assault and damaging public property stemming from an incident in October 2022 and on Feb 8 he was fined 5 million won (S$5,200). The ruling said King had punched a man in the face at a club on Sept 25, but the case was settled.
Then on Oct 8, 2022, the police responded to a report of another altercation involving Pte King and tried to question him, but he continued his “aggressive behaviour”, kicking the door of a police car he was placed in and shouting expletives, according to the ruling.
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pte King had been due to face disciplinary action by the military on his return home to Fort Bliss, Texas. It was not clear if that was related to the October 2022 incident.
The question of what drove Pte King to act as he did on Tuesday remains a mystery.
Pte King’s uncle, Mr Carl Gates, suggested that he had been in distress over the death of his seven-year-old cousin from a rare genetic disorder earlier in 2023.
Mr Gates, who described himself as Pte King’s “father figure”, told The Daily Beast he had been one of the last people to talk to him by phone before he crossed into North Korea. Pte King is from Racine, Wisconsin, according to news reports.
“It seemed like he was breaking down. It affected Travis a lot,” Mr Gates said of his son’s death. “Because he couldn’t be here.”
Details of Tuesday’s chaotic scene at the border have begun to emerge.
“It all happened pretty quickly,” said Ms Sarah Leslie, a New Zealander who was on the same tour in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ. She was among some 40 other tourists who were walking around and taking photos in the moments before Pte King made a dash to North Korea.
The group had just left one of the iconic blue buildings that straddles the border between the two Koreas and is used for negotiations, when Pte King – wearing jeans, a black shirt and a black hat with the letters DMZ printed on it – suddenly ran between the structures toward the North, she said.
“I don’t think anyone who was sane would want to go to North Korea, so I assumed it was some kind of stunt,” she told Reuters. American soldiers and South Korean guards ran after him shouting but he was already on the north side of the border, Ms Leslie said.
Holding someone like Pte King can also be a headache for the North if it drags on.
When a US soldier defects, North Korea has to create a security and surveillance team for them, and arrange an interpreter, a private vehicle, driver and lodging, said former North Korean diplomat Tae Yong-ho, who is a now a member of South Korea’s Parliament.
Pyongyang has a standard playbook for treating American and other Western detainees or defectors well to avoid political blowback, said Mr Andrei Lankov, director of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group. The notable exception was US college student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 shortly after being released from a North Korea prison.
Detainees are often housed in the North Korean equivalent of a four-star hotel, Mr Lankov said.
Still, analysts suggested that Pte King’s stay in North Korea could be lengthy.
“It’s always good to resolve these ASAP, but I am not certain that will be the case,” said Mr Victor Cha, a former US official and Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Historically, the North holds these folks for weeks, if not months, for propaganda purposes (especially if this is a US soldier) before a coerced confession and apology,” he said. - REUTERS