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How US Soldier Made his Dash Into North Korea

A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed as his grandfather, Carl Gates, talks about his grandson July 19, 2023, in Kenosha, Wis.
A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed as his grandfather, Carl Gates, talks about his grandson July 19, 2023, in Kenosha, Wis.

SEOUL/WASHINGTON - U.S. Army Private Travis T. King had finished serving nearly two months in detention in South Korea and was being escorted to the airport to fly home and likely face disciplinary action. But he never made it to his plane.

Instead, roughly 24 hours later, he sprinted into North Korea while on a civilian tour of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas.

So began a bizarre odyssey that landed an active-duty American soldier in North Korean hands and created a fresh problem for Washington in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.

While much remains unknown, investigations by authorities from Seoul to Washington and witness accounts have begun slowly piecing together a picture of King and what transpired in the final hours before his escape.

Turnaround at the airport

On Monday, King was due to board American Airlines Flight 280 from Seoul's Incheon Airport to Dallas, Texas, scheduled to depart at 5:40 p.m., according to a U.S. military report obtained by the U.S. website The Messenger, and an airport official who spoke to Reuters.

King, 23, was escorted by other American soldiers, who could not accompany him past the security checks, so he proceeded alone to the departure hall, officials have said. King texted his Army escort to say he had arrived at his departure gate, according to The Messenger report.

There, he told American Airlines staff that he lost his passport, the Incheon Airport official said.

Escorted by an airline worker with the approval of a South Korean justice ministry official, King left the boarding zone and was seen exiting through departure gate No. 4, returning to the terminal at around 7 p.m., the Incheon airport official said. He declined to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to media on the matter.

Flight records show Flight 280 departed nearly an hour late that day, but it is unclear if that delay was due to King skipping the flight.

Reuters could not ascertain how King returned to Seoul from Incheon, which is roughly an hour away by train or bus, or where he stayed Monday night.

Border tour

According to the U.S. military "serious incident report" cited by The Messenger, in May King had booked two different DMZ tours, prior to his 50-day detention. He wasn't able to make the first tour, but was confirmed for the second, scheduled for Tuesday.

That tour was a 10-hour, full day tour of the DMZ operated by South Korean company HanaTour ITC. The tours start at $180, according to a TripAdvisor itinerary provided by Sarah Leslie, a New Zealand tourist who was on the same trip with King.

It departed at 8 a.m. Tuesday from Namdaemun Market, not far from Seoul's main train station, according to the itinerary.

Leslie told Reuters she does not recall anyone joining from another spot.

HanaTour ITC declined to comment and referred questions to the United Nations Command (UNC), a U.S.-led force that oversees the JSA on the South Korean side.

A group of tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, July 18, 2023. Travis King is fourth from the left, in a dark blue shirt and dark cap.
A group of tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, July 18, 2023. Travis King is fourth from the left, in a dark blue shirt and dark cap.

Like all DMZ trips that include stops at the Joint Security Area (JSA), the tour was capped at 40 people and required copies of passports or U.S. government identification cards be provided in advance and cleared by the UNC.

King used his U.S. government I.D. to check in for the tour, The Messenger reported.

Sprint to the North

By the time the group arrived at the JSA on Tuesday afternoon, they were nearing the end of the tour, having already visited an observation post with a view into North Korea, and a tunnel once dug under the DMZ by North Korean soldiers, among other sights.

At the JSA, however, the tourists would get the chance to step across the border into North Korea itself, inside one of the iconic blue buildings that straddles the border and is used for negotiations.

At around 3:30 p.m. the group had just left the building and was standing around taking photos when King - wearing jeans, a black shirt and a black hat with the letters "DMZ" printed on it - suddenly ran between the structures toward the North, Leslie said.

"It all happened pretty quickly," she said, with American and South Korean guards shouting "Get him" and unsuccessfully trying to stop King from crossing. "I assumed it was some kind of stunt."

The Messenger reported King ran to the back of a building where he entered a van and was driven out of the area by North Korean troops.

U.S. officials say they have not heard from him since.

Uncertain future

King, who joined the U.S. Army in January 2021, had served as a cavalry scout with the Korean Rotational Force, part of the decades-old U.S. security commitment to South Korea.

But his posting was dogged by legal troubles.

He faced two allegations of assault and eventually pleaded guilty to one instance of assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans, according to court documents.

From May 24 to July 10 he served a sentence of hard labor at the Cheonan correctional facility in lieu of paying a fine, Yonhap news agency reported.

After his release from the prison, which is a designated facility for U.S. military members and other foreigners, King stayed at a U.S. base in South Korea for a week, Yonhap said.

A Cheonan prison official confirmed King had served the hard labor sentence there but declined to provide further information, citing privacy concerns.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said King had been due to face military disciplinary action on his return home to Fort Bliss, Texas.

The question of what drove King to act as he did Tuesday remains a mystery.

King's uncle, Carl Gates, told The Daily Beast King had been in distress over the death of his 7-year-old cousin from a rare genetic disorder earlier this year.

"It seemed like he was breaking down. It affected Travis a lot," Gates said of his son's death.

King's exact whereabouts are still unknown, as well as what happens next.

When a U.S. soldier defects, North Korea has to create a security and surveillance team for them, and arrange an interpreter, a private vehicle, driver and lodging, said former North Korean diplomat Tae Yong-ho, who is a now a member of South Korea's parliament.

Pyongyang has typically treated American and other Western detainees or defectors well to avoid political blowback, said Andrei Lankov, director of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group. The notable exception was U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 shortly after being released from a North Korea prison.

Detainees are often housed in the North Korean equivalent of a four-star hotel, Lankov said.

Still, analysts suggested King's stay in North Korea could be lengthy.

"It's always good to resolve these ASAP, but I am not certain that will be the case," said Victor Cha, a former U.S. official and Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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