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Travis King was grieving the death of his young cousin before he crossed the border into North Korea, his family says

“Travis has got a lot going on in his mind, and we’re worried about him,” the American soldier's uncle said. “Now we don’t know where he is, we don’t know what they’re doing to him, and we might not ever see him again.”
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The 23-year-old Army private who intentionally crossed into North Korea on Tuesday had been grieving the loss of his young cousin, struggling with the distance from home and acting unlike himself when he was previously arrested in South Korea, where he was stationed, his family said Wednesday. 

His family expressed deep concern Wednesday for Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, who ran at top speed from a tour group visiting the Joint Security Area in the truce village known as Panmunjom, crossed the border Tuesday and ended up in North Korea’s custody.

“It’s out of his character,” King’s uncle Myron Gates said. “I’ve never seen him get down like that, ever. Something’s going on. This is not his personality.”

In an interview Wednesday at their home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Myron Gates and King’s grandfather Carl Gates described the young soldier as a Bible reader who enjoyed quiet time alone.

Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King.
Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King.via Carl Gates

That characterization was unlike the young private, who served almost two months in a South Korean prison after declining to pay a fine in an assault investigation. Before he was detained by North Korean soldiers on Tuesday, King had slipped out of Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, the capital. He had been preparing to fly home for possible further disciplinary action after his incarceration. 

The military had escorted him to the airport, but he was left unaccompanied from security to the airport gate, according to the AP. His motive for crossing into North Korea remains unknown.

But another uncle, Carl Gates, said that King, who graduated from Park High School in Racine in 2020, had been in a negative state of mind since his cousin died and that he acted out as a result. The cousin, 6-year-old King’Nazir Gates, who had a rare and untreatable genetic disorder, died in February, Carl Gates said. 

“He’s still grieving, and that had a lot to do with what he did,” King’s uncle said.

Carl Gates said he was a father figure to King and one of the last people to speak to him before he illegally crossed the border. He declined to fully comment on his nephew’s actions until King’s mother discusses the situation, but he said King struggled with being so far from home. 

“Travis has got a lot going on in his mind, and we’re worried about him,” he added. “Now we don’t know where he is, we don’t know what they’re doing to him, and we might not ever see him again.”

King’s mother, Claudia Gates, did not respond to requests for comment. When she was approached outside her home in Racine on Wednesday, she told WISN-TV of Milwaukee that her utmost concern is getting her son home.

“I just want my son back. Get my son home. Get my son home and pray that he comes back,” she said. 

That could take some time.

Now in North Korean custody, King, who enlisted in the Army in 2021, crossed the heavily fortified border “willfully and without authorization,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Tuesday. U.S. officials said they are working to have him released, though it is unclear what dialogue they have had with North Korea. 

Although King’s motive for crossing and his state of mind when he departed the airport are not known, there are a few certainties in the aftermath, said Victor Cha, the senior vice president for Asia and the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“This is technically a violation of the armistice, so there would be working-level negotiations with regards to that, because it’s an unauthorized crossing,” Cha said. He added that “it also becomes political right away with North Korea, because they will probably put this guy on trial, especially because he’s a soldier. There could be some sort of coerced apology or claim of defection, but that could take weeks or months.”

“I’m sure they’re interrogating him and figuring out how they want to use this,” Cha added.

Witnesses on the tour group King had joined before he crossed the border said the moment was alarming and caused some to worry that it could lead to some kind of attack.

Sarah Leslie, a New Zealander who was part of the group, said she thought it was some kind of stunt done for TikTok fame at first. Though soldiers gave chase, she said, “he was really flying, and I don’t think they had much hope of stopping him.”

Members of the tour were ordered inside one of the nearby buildings before they were eventually loaded back onto their bus and driven out of the Joint Security Area. The moment was terrifying, she said, because she feared someone might start shooting. 

“On the tour, they talked about a number of incidents that had happened on the border and in the DMZ — quite a few of those involved shooting or worse by the North Koreans,” Leslie said, referring to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas. “So that was something that ran through my mind. There’s a guy dressed in black running straight at the North Korean side of the border. That’s a possibility.”

Cha, who was a top adviser on North Korean affairs for President George W. Bush, said whatever happens from here could benefit North Korea and be used in its propaganda. 

He said it would most likely require a visit from a high-ranking current or former U.S. official to secure King’s freedom. In 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to ensure three Americans were freed when he traveled to Pyongyang. Former President Jimmy Carter was able to retrieve Aijalon Mahli Gomes in 2010. And a visit from former President Bill Clinton in 2009 secured the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months, was released in 2017. He was returned to the U.S. unconscious and died later. 

His father, Fred Warmbier, said Wednesday that King’s situation was “a gift” to Kim Jong Un’s regime. But he said it would be a mistake to criticize King for his actions, adding that it should be a priority for the government to ensure his swift return to the U.S.

“Regardless of the circumstances or the situation, this young man deserves the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

How those negotiations will move forward is unknown. The U.S. had increased its presence in the region to push back against North Korea’s missile testing and China’s creeping influence. The USS Kentucky arrived in Busan, South Korea, on Tuesday. It was the first time a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine had visited the Korean peninsula in 40 years, according to U.S. Strategic Command.

Cha said it would most likely put the Biden administration in a temporary bind as the media and policymakers grow preoccupied with this moment, rather than the deterrence dialogues the U.S. and regional allies had focused on. 

It could, however, lead to an opportunity, as well, because North Korea has not responded to any of the Biden administration’s efforts to talk, Cha said. 

“If there is contact at a more political level, then we might want to say, ‘Let’s talk about some other stuff, too, not just this issue,’” he added.

CLARIFICATION (July 20, 2 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to clarify that King served time in a South Korean prison after declining to pay a fine in connection with an assault investigation. An assault charge in a separate case was dismissed.