A US soldier who had been locked up for two months in a South Korean prison fled across the heavily armed border into North Korea Tuesday, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years.
Private 2nd Class Travis King – who has served in the Army for more than two years – had been held on assault charges and was released on July 10 after serving his time.
Instead of getting on a plane to be taken back to Fort Bliss, Texas, he left and joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he ran across the border, U.S. officials say.
The Pentagon is now scrambling to find out where the private has been taken amid ratcheting tensions in the Pacific. King’s motivations for his high-stakes gambit remain unclear.
His mother has spoken out, denying claims that he was fleeing and saying she desperately wants her son to return.
‘I’m so proud of him. I just want him to come home, come back to America,’ Claudine Gates told ABC News.
Travis King crossed into North Korea shortly after being released from prison in South Korea
King’s detainment came ahead of North Korea firing two short-range ballistic missiles into its eastern sea early Wednesday in what appeared to be a statement of defiance as the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades.
The events have been part of a whirlwind day along the Korea peninsula, including King fleeing into North Korea.
Gates, who lives in Racine, Wisconsin, added she couldn’t see her son fleeing and entering North Korea on purpose.
‘I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,’ Claudine Gates said.
According to officials, King, 23, was taken to the airport and escorted as far as customs. He was set to return to Fort Bliss to face military action after completing his South Korean sentence.
He was being held in jail for allegedly kicking a South Korean police squad car.
But instead of getting on the plane, King left the airport and later joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom, which is lined with guards and often crowded with tourists.
The Army released his name and limited information after King’s family was notified of the incident.
But a number of U.S. officials provided additional details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
It wasn’t clear how he got to the border or how he spent the hours between leaving the airport on Monday and crossing the border a day later.
King’s mother has spoken out, denying claims that he was fleeing and saying she desperately wants her son to return
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, just wants her son to return to their Wisconsin home (pictured)
At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the U.S. service member was likely now in North Korean custody
King bolted across the border, which is lined with guards and often crowded with tourists, on Tuesday afternoon local time in Korea
At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the U.S. service member was likely now in North Korean custody.
‘We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation,’ Austin said, noting he was foremost concerned about the troop’s wellbeing. ‘This will develop in the next several days and hours, and we’ll keep you posted.’
According to Army spokesman Bryce Dubee, King is a cavalry scout who joined the service in January 2021. He was in Korea as part of the 1st Armored Division.
The American-led U.N. Command said he is believed to be in North Korean custody and the command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident. North Korea´s state media didn´t immediately report on the border crossing.
Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The war has been at a standstill for decades, though hostilities remain. Hours after King fled into North Korea, the ‘hermit kingdom’ launched missiles that also came in the wake of a US sub docking in South Korea.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said from 3:30am to 3:46am, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near capital Pyongyang that flew about 341 miles before landing in waters east of the Korean Peninsula.
Those flight details were similar to the assessment of the Japanese military, which said the missiles landed outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone and that there were no immediate reports of damage from ships or aircraft in affected areas.
The flight distance of the North Korean missiles roughly matched the distance between Pyongyang and the South Korean port city of Busan, where the USS Kentucky arrived Tuesday afternoon in the first visit by a US nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea since the 1980s.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into its eastern sea early Wednesday in what appeared to be a statement of defiance as the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on July 18
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters that the North Korean missiles traveled on a low trajectory, with their maximum altitude reaching about 31 miles, and possibly demonstrated ‘irregular maneuver’ in flight.
Japan has previously used similar language to describe the flight characteristics of a North Korean weapon modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile, which travels at low altitudes and is designed to be maneuverable in flight to improve its chances of evading missile defenses.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff condemned the North Korean launches as ‘major provocation’ that threatens peace and stability in the region and said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely monitoring the North for further weapons activities.
A U.S. nuclear-armed submarine visited South Korea on Tuesday for the first time in four decades in deterrence against North Korea.
Wednesday’s launches marked the North’s first ballistic activity since July 12, when it flight-tested a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that demonstrated potential range to reach deep into the U.S. mainland.
The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt were coerced while in North Korean custody.