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Travis King spent 48 days in prison in South Korea before bolting across border to North

King had been escorted by the military to an airport outside Seoul for possible further disciplinary action in the U.S. before he ended up on the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea.
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SEOUL, South Korea — More details emerged Thursday about the last months in South Korea of a U.S. soldier who fled across the border to North Korea, as the isolated communist country remained silent about his status.

Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, 23, spent 48 days in a prison in Cheonan, a city about 50 miles south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, after he failed to pay a $4,000 fine on charges that included damaging public property, a South Korean government official said by phone Thursday.

According to legal documents, King did not cooperate when officers apprehended him in October after he caused hundreds of dollars in damage to a police patrol car as he shouted profanities about Koreans and the Korean army.

Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King.
Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King.via Facebook

“Each day Mr. King spent at the penitentiary was equivalent to about 100,000 won,” or about $80, said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The incident threatened to worsen tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, a repressive and insular nuclear-armed nation still technically at war with the South. The U.S. does not have an embassy in North Korea, complicating any potential negotiations over King’s return.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Thursday that U.S. officials had reached out to North Korean officials but had received no reply. “Not very much is known about his status,” Wormuth said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “I don’t think we have successfully made contact with the North Korean authorities.”

Asked whether the U.S. military considered King to be AWOL or a deserter, Wormuth said, "I'm not sure what we would call him." She confirmed that King had willfully crossed into North Korea after having served time in a South Korean jail for assaulting a person there and then failed to board a flight back to the U.S. to face military discipline.

"He was going to come back to the United States and face the consequences in the Army," she said. "I'm sure that he was grappling with that. We obviously don't know exactly what was in his mind." She added, "I worry about how they may treat him, so [we] want to get him back."

Asked whether King had shown signs of sympathizing with the North Korean government, Wormuth replied, "I don't think we have any information that points to that clearly."

A senior administration official said Tuesday that the U.S. immediately told North Korea that King had crossed the border willfully and was not acting on orders. North Korea confirmed receipt of the message but then went silent, the official said.

At a news conference later Wednesday, Defense Department spokesperson Sabrina Singh confirmed that the U.S. had been in contact with Sweden, through which the U.S. maintains embassy-level relations with North Korea. The White House has also pursued other interagency efforts to reach the country’s leadership.

The U.S. has not yet received a response from Pyongyang, she said, meaning there are no updates on King’s condition or on avenues to retrieve him.

“We don’t know his condition. We don’t know where he’s being held. We don’t know the status of his health,” Singh said.

King, who was released July 10, had been escorted by the military to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul on Tuesday for possible further disciplinary action in the U.S. 

An airport official told NBC News on Thursday that King went to his gate but was missing a travel document he needed to board the plane and was escorted out by an American Airlines employee.

He ended up on a group tour of the Joint Security Area on the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, where he bolted across to the North, to the shock of the tourists around him.

Mikaela Johansson, who was on the tour, said Thursday that “no one really figured out what was happening until it was too late.” She added that King just “disappeared around the corner.”

“I thought: ‘This is not funny. It must be a joke,’” she said.

An American Airlines source familiar with the situation confirmed that King was escorted from the departure gate.

King’s relatives said Wednesday that he had been grieving the death of his young cousin and acting unlike himself. 

“It’s out of his character,” his uncle Myron Gates said. “I’ve never seen him get down like that, ever.”

King is the first American known to have been detained in North Korea in nearly five years. 

It is “absolutely possible” that North Korea will interrogate him, said Mickey Bergman, the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit corporation founded by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage negotiations.

North Korea may well conclude that King is troubled, decide “they don’t want to deal with this and return him or deport him,” said Bergman, who was involved in negotiations for the return of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who was detained in North Korea in 2016 and died after he returned to the U.S.

The U.S. has about 28,000 troops stationed in the South, a treaty ally that has remained frozen in conflict with the North since the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty 70 years ago this month.