SEOUL, South Korea — Travis King, the U.S. Army private who intentionally ran across the border into North Korea this summer, is in U.S. custody in China, U.S. officials said Wednesday, shortly after the isolated East Asian country said it would expel him.
“U.S. officials have secured the return of Private Travis King from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea," the Defense Department press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said in a statement. He went on to thank the U.S. military personnel who worked to "bring Private King home," as well as the governments of Sweden and China.
Later, two U.S. defense officials told NBC News that King would be flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio overnight after having spent some time in South Korea.
There, they said, he will undergo post-isolation support activities, known as PISA, which help prisoners of war and wrongfully detained Americans reacclimatize to being in the U.S. and deal with any trauma or post-traumatic stress.
King, 23, bolted across the heavily armed border July 18 during a public tour of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
A statement reported by the state-run news agency KCNA said King had confessed he “illegally intruded” into North Korean territory because “he was disillusioned about inhumane treatment and racial discrimination” in the Army, as well as the “inequality existing within the American Society.”
The U.S. has not yet officially responded to the claims.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell that she was “overjoyed” and relieved to have received a call from her son.
“She’s been on pins and needles these 71 days,” Franks said, adding that Gates was “extremely grateful” to the Army and its interagency partners at the National Security Council and the White House.
He added that she did not know why her son was let go but that “they were able to connect on the phone, and she relayed that he was in good spirits and she was thrilled.”
“This was a call just to say: ‘Hey, how are you? I love you; I care about you.’ It’s probably not a time to ask for a whole bunch of details or ask a lot of questions,” he said.
Before he crossed the border, King had not long been released from a South Korean prison and was being escorted by the military to Incheon International Airport near Seoul to possibly face further disciplinary action in the U.S.
King had violated part of the joint security agreement and was being escorted to the airport after having completed his punishment, a senior administration official said.
The official said King instead joined a commercial tour group headed for the Joint Security Area, an area administered by the United Nations between the North and the South.
A spokesperson for the Army said Wednesday the chain of command would address King’s status “at a later time.”
“The Army’s focus right now is on ensuring the soldier’s well-being and privacy,” spokesperson Bryce Dubee said.
King's detention has come at a time of elevated tension between the isolated communist state and its southern neighbor and the U.S.
Pyongyang has escalated its nuclear threats and embarked on a campaign of weapons tests, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently embarked on a rare trip outside the country for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The growing ties between the two regimes have fueled Western fears that Kim may be willing to supply ammunition for the Kremlin's war in Ukraine in exchange for military technology or economic aid that would negate international sanctions.
North Korea remained silent about King for weeks until it confirmed his detention in August with a statement attributing comments to him that were critical of the U.S.
Gates, King’s mother, later cast doubt on any suggestion that her son may have defected because of dissatisfaction with life in the Army.
“I just can’t see him ever wanting to just stay in Korea when he has family in America. He has so many reasons to come home,” Gates, of Racine, Wisconsin, told The Associated Press.
Stella Kim reported from Seoul, Patrick Smith from London, Courtney Kube from Washington and Mosheh Gaines from Luanda, Angola.