Army Pvt. Travis King is currently in the custody of the United States of America but reports from the media in North Korea where he was detained for roughly five years have another interesting story you wouldn’t expect.
King, 23, was the first American to be detained in North Korea in roughly five years. The private was stationed in South Korea and crossed over the border during a civilian tour of a border village. The unexpected escape came as he was awaiting a transfer back to the U.S. amid possible discipline for an assault conviction in South Korea.
Pyongyang was silent for weeks until confirming he was in custody in August. On Wednesday, North Korean state media suddenly announced King would be released after another period of uncertainty.
North Korean media has claimed that under questioning, King said he fled because of racial discrimination in the U.S., a claim Pyongyang also aired earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a statement from Senior administration officials says “King, who is currently headed back to the U.S. mainland, is happy to return and is looking forward to seeing his family.”
U.S. officials said they worked for months to bring King home, and the past few weeks involved close coordination with North Korea to ensure the service member was safe and could soon return home.
The successful diplomatic effort is also a positive sign for future communication channels with North Korea.
“This incident to our minds demonstrates that keeping lines of communication open, even when ties are strained, is a really important thing and can deliver results,” a U.S. official said, adding they were “ready for any further diplomacy that might be possible.”
In the process, the Biden administration also connected with Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang, and with China.
Sweden played a vital role, constantly keeping in contact with the Biden administration during negotiations. While there was a real fear that Pyongyang might hold King to extract concessions, that changed earlier this month when officials working on the case learned from Sweden that North Korea wanted to release King.
Beijing also played a “very constructive role” in the process, officials said. North Korea transferred King to China, where he was picked up by U.S. officials Wednesday.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan thanked the “dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing.”
“In addition, we thank the government of Sweden for its diplomatic role serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the transit of Private King,” he said in a statement.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder also thanked “the hard work of personnel in the Army, United States Forces Korea, and across the Department of Defense, along with our State Department colleagues, to bring Private King back to the United States.”