DALLAS — An American soldier who sprinted into North Korea and was held there for two months before being returned to the U.S. is set to undergo medical testing and extensive questioning about his time in the isolated country before potentially facing charges under the military justice system.
Pvt. Travis King ran across the heavily fortified border from South Korea in July and became the first American detained in North Korea in nearly five years.
Pyongyang abruptly announced Wednesday that it would expel King, and he was flown to an Air Force base in Texas on Thursday.
Here’s what we know about King, his mysterious entry into North Korea and what’s happened in similar cases.
Who is he, and what happened?
King, 23, joined the Army in January 2021 and was in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division, according to military officials.
On July 10 he was released from a South Korean prison after serving nearly two months on assault charges. He was set to be sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced potential additional disciplinary actions and discharge.
Officials said King was taken to the airport and escorted as far as customs. But instead of getting on the plane, he left and later joined a civilian tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom. He bolted across the border, which is lined with guards and often crowded with tourists, in the afternoon.
North Korea’s state news agency said King, who is Black, had said he entered the country because he “harbored ill feelings against inhuman mistreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.”
U.S. officials have cast doubt on the authenticity of those statements, and King’s mother, Claudine Gates of Racine, Wisconsin, told The Associated Press she never heard him express such views.
It remains unclear why King crossed the border and why Pyongyang — which has tense relations with Washington over its nuclear program, its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues — agreed to release him.
What happens next?
The coming weeks are likely to hold a battery of medical and phycological examinations as well as intelligence debriefings about his time in North Korea, a country few Americans enter.
King arrived early Thursday at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, according to the Pentagon. Along with the testing and questioning, he will also get a chance to see family.
King’s movements will likely be controlled while commanders learn what they can from him and decide what to do next, said Rachel VanLandingham, a national security law expert and professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. She said the probable next steps are formal charges under the military justice system, but they could take months.
“Based on their track record, I think they’re going to court-martial him,” said VanLandingham, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, adding that the evidence against King appears “overwhelming” but he could also be discharged without charges.
King was declared AWOL but not considered a deserter. Punishment for going AWOL or desertion vary based on a number of factors that are complicated by King’s two-month absence and ultimate handover by North Korean.
The fact that he spent weeks in the secretive country would be unlikely to give him any leverage with the U.S. military over his punishment, said Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps. prosecutor and military judge.
“I don’t think that he would have been allowed to have seen anything of strategic or even tactical value that he might use as a bargaining chip,” Solis said. “I think he’s out of luck.”
What has happened before in similar cases?
The last active duty soldier returned to the U.S. by an adversary was Bowe Bergdahl, VanLandingham said.
Bergdahl was 23 when he left his Army post in Afghanistan in 2009, was abducted by the Taliban and was held captive and tortured for nearly five years. He later said he left to report what he saw as poor leadership within his unit.
Several U.S. service members were wounded while searching for Bergdahl. After his return in a prisoner swap, he was charged in military court with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl pleaded guilty to both charges in 2017, but a judge vacated his conviction this year.
VanLandingham said that while the two cases are not identical, the fact that the Army pursued a court-martial against Bergdahl suggests it will against King as well.
Officials said King was released in good health, unlike Otto Warmbier, another American recently held in North Korea.
Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, was seized by North Korean authorities from a tour group in January 2016, convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
He spent 17 months in captivity before he was released and flown home in a coma, dying shortly afterward in June 2017.
While not providing a clear reason for Warmbier’s brain damage, North Korea denied accusations by Warmbier’s family that he was tortured.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin contributed to this report.