Pvt. Travis T. King, the American soldier who crossed into North Korea on July 18, was released into U.S. custody on Wednesday after weeks of diplomacy mediated by the Swedish government, American officials said.
Private King was to be reunited with his family in the United States and given physical and mental health support after being held by the North Koreans for 70 days.
“U.S. officials have secured the return of Pvt. Travis King from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said in a statement.
Private King’s first stop after leaving North Korea was China, where U.S. officials were waiting for him, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the transfer.
Private King was then put on a plane and flown to a U.S. military facility in South Korea, an American official said.
The official said Private King would be immediately transferred to a military plane for a flight to a U.S. medical facility in San Antonio, where he would undergo examinations. Private King is expected to arrive in Texas late Wednesday or early Thursday.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss flight details, said that the Swedish authorities had determined that Private King was healthy enough to be flown directly back to the United States without a medical examination at U.S. military facilities in South Korea or Japan.
His release came after North Korean officials decided to expel him, saying that they had found him guilty of “illegally intruding” into their territory, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. The state news agency said that Private King had confessed to illegally entering North Korea because, it said, he “harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army and was disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society.”
A senior administration official said President Biden, who had been briefed on the efforts to secure Private King’s release, made no concessions to North Korea.
“The answer is simple,” the official said. “There were none. Full stop.”
Private King, 23, had been assigned to South Korea as a member of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division. After being released in July from a South Korean detention center, where he had spent time on assault charges, he was escorted by U.S. military personnel to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul to board a plane to the United States, where he was expected to face additional disciplinary action.
He never boarded the plane. Instead, he fled to the North through the Demilitarized Zone, which separates North and South Korea, by taking a bus the next day to the border village of Panmunjom, which lies inside the DMZ and allows tourists to visit.
The soldier “willfully and without authorization crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Col. Isaac Taylor, the public affairs officer for U.S. Forces Korea, said at the time.
American officials offered few details of what they said was a “truly complex operation” to retrieve Private King from one of the world’s most isolated countries. They said the key was Sweden’s government, which serves as the so-called protecting power, or diplomatic go-between, for the United States in North Korea.
Officials said the United States had learned from Sweden several weeks ago that the North Koreans had decided to expel Private King in the near future. That kicked off a period of indirect but intense negotiations between the United States and North Korea, and direct discussions with China.
The effort to recover Private King was part of the discussion that Mr. Sullivan had with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China during two days of high-level discussions in Malta this month, according to a senior administration official.
The result of the negotiations and discussions was the operation on Wednesday, in which Swedish officials entered North Korea, took custody of Private King and brought him into China. He was then flown to the U.S. military facility.
U.S. officials praised the Chinese government for its assistance in facilitating Private King’s departure from the country, but insisted that China did not participate in mediating the talks with North Korea in the past several weeks.
The U.S. officials declined to say why they believed North Korea decided to release Private King after a relatively short time.
North Korea said last month that Private King had wanted to seek refuge there or in a third country. In its announcement on Wednesday, it did not elaborate on why it had decided not to grant his wish.
The U.S. officials declined to say what disciplinary action, if any, would be taken after Private King returned to the United States.
His mother, Claudine Gates, was grateful to the United States and those who worked for her son’s release “for a job well done,” said her spokesman, Jonathan Franks.
Private King was the first known American held in North Korean custody since Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained for a month after illegally entering the country from China in 2018.
American civilians accused of illegal entry have been prosecuted and sentenced to hard labor, or sometimes released and expelled. In the cases of some civilians accused of illegal entry, North Korea has used them as bargaining chips in negotiations with Washington, with which it has no formal diplomatic ties.
The death in 2017 of Otto F. Warmbier, a University of Virginia honors student who spent 17 months in captivity in North Korea, received widespread attention.