1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Travis King: The US soldier who fled to North Korea

Monir Ghaedi
September 28, 2023

Private Travis King returns to the US after being freed by North Korea, amid high tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. Who is King and how does his case compare to the other US citizens entering North Korea?

A portrait of American soldier Travis King displayed at the home of his grandfather Carl Gates
Travis King sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified borderImage: Family Photo/AP Photo/picture alliance

Travis King, an American soldier who fled across the border from South Korea to North Korea, has arrived in the United States after North Korea expelled him into China, US officials announced on Thursday.

On Wednesday, North Korea's state news agency KCNA said that King had confessed to illegally entering North Korean territory because he was "disillusioned about the unequal US society."

According to the US media, King crossed the Chinese border on Wednesday. Chinese authorities subsequently transferred him to the US Embassy, which, in turn, coordinated his transport to the United States.

On July 18, while on a civilian tour of the heavily fortified North Korean border, the 23-year-old private made an unexpected move by crossing into North Korean custody from the South.

Who is Travis King, and why did he go to North Korea?

Private King has been a reconnaissance specialist with the US Army since January 2021.

He was stationed in South Korea, but before crossing into North Korea, he spent two months in prison there on charges of assault.

South Korean media reported that King had punched a South Korean national during a fight in a club last September. He had also received a 5 million won (about 3,500 euros) fine for causing public disturbance and displaying uncooperative behavior during his arrest.

After the end of his detention in July, King was escorted to the airport for a planned return to the United States, where he could face further disciplinary consequences. However, he left the airport and joined a tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where he abruptly crossed into North Korea despite efforts by South Korean and US guards to stop him. He remained in North Korea for over 70 days, with little information available regarding his condition or precise location.

Three soldiers walking in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a heavily fortified buffer separating North and South Korea.Image: nthony WALLACE /AFP/Getty Images

According to family members who spoke with US media, his mental health deteriorated following the death of his seven-year-old cousin in February. Relatives also mentioned that he encountered instances of racism during his military deployment and after he spent time in a South Korean jail.

What's next for King?

The US government has said that he will initially undergo an evaluation and a reintegration process to facilitate the reunion with his family.

According to the Reuters news agency, King is due to receive a medical examination at Brooke Army Medical Center in Houston. In December,  basketball star Brittney Griner received treatment at the same center following her release in a prisoner exchange with Russia.

King could face disciplinary action in the US. However, the Pentagon has not yet called him a deserter, even though he was on active duty while crossing the North Korean border.

US tensions with North Korea and China

The Pentagon has recently intensified military exercises with Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has conducted numerous tests of ballistic and hypersonic missiles, launching short-range weapons into the Sea of Japan. The US has also cautioned North Korea against supplying weapons to Russiafor its invasion of Ukraine.

North Korea's 'nuclear attack simulation'

China and the US have also clashed over various economic and geopolitical issues, including China threatening to annex Taiwan.

US officials expressed gratitude for China's cooperation in facilitating the transfer but emphasized that Beijing had a mediating role. Since there are no diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Washington, the Swedish government, acting as the representative of US interests in North Korea, notified the US administration about King's release, Reuters reported.

Prior cases of US citizens in North Korea

Several cases of US citizens in North Korea's custody have captured international attention, including army defectors and individuals imprisoned for alleged charges of espionage, illegal entry, or anti-government activities.

One of the most well-known cases was Otto Warmbier, a college student who was arrested in 2016 for attempting to steal a propaganda poster while on a tour of North Korea. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but was released in a comatose state in 2017 and died shortly after returning to the United States.

 The casket of Otto Warmbier is carried from Wyoming High School after his funeral
College student Otto Warmbier died after being arrested in North KoreaImage: Bryan Woolston/AP Images/picture alliance

Another significant case was Matthew Miller, arrested in 2014 for allegedly tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entering North Korea. He was sentenced to six years of hard labor but was released the same year after making a public confession and appealing for forgiveness. Miller told the AP news agency he spent eight hours a day working in fields and enduring isolation during his time in North Korean custody.

Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary, was arrested in 2012 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the North Korean government. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but was released in 2014 after intensive diplomatic efforts.

Additionally, there have been cases of US military personnel defecting to North Korea, such as Charles Jenkins, who deserted the US Army in 1965 and lived in North Korea for nearly 40 years. North Korea featured Jenkins in propaganda leaflets and films. He eventually left North Korea in 2004 and faced legal consequences in the United States.

In July 2017, partially in response to the death of Otto Warmbier, Washington banned US citizens from visiting North Korea. The initial ban, set to expire on August 31, 2022, was extended for the seventh time in August for another year.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer