US soldier Travis King arrives in Texas after release from North Korea
PHOTO CAPTION: U.S. Army soldier Travis King appears is seen in an undated photo obtained by REUTERS
By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Army Private Travis King landed at a U.S. military base in Texas early on Thursday after being expelled from North Korea following his surprise dash across the heavily militarized border two months ago, a U.S. defense official told Reuters.
King arrived on a U.S. military flight, landing at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston at about 0530 GMT, the official said.
Television footage showed a group of people leaving a plane at the base at that time.
King is expected to undergo a medical review at Brooke Army Medical Center, a hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. Basketball star Brittney Griner was treated there in December after a prisoner swap with Russia ended her 10 months in Russian detention.
The U.S. government has said that upon his return King will first undergo evaluation then a reintegration process so he can be reunited with his family.
King, 23, ran into North Korea from the South on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the heavily fortified border and was immediately taken into North Korean custody.
It was unclear if King will face disciplinary action by the U.S. Army, which has treated his case with care. The Army has so far not called him a deserter, even though he crossed the border without authorization while on active duty.
For its part, North Korea appears to have treated his case as one of illegal immigration.
North Korea's KCNA state news agency said King told Pyongyang he entered North Korea illegally because he was "disillusioned about unequal U.S. society."
The Swedish government, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic presence in the country, retrieved King in North Korea and brought him to China.
The State Department said the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, met King in Dandong, China, a city bordering North Korea. King then flew from there to Shenyang, China, then to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea, before continuing his voyage back to the United States.
"UNFIT" FOR PROPAGANDA
King, who joined the U.S. army in January 2021, faced two allegations of assault in South Korea. He 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. He had been due to face more disciplinary measures when he arrived back in the United States.
Pyongyang appears to have concluded King's criminal background made him "unfit" for propaganda purposes, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"North Korea could have decided to release King relatively quickly after seeing little advantage in keeping him," Yang said.
"Keeping him longer would have only raised the risk of another incident like Otto Warmbier's so they might have just opted to use it as a chance to highlight themselves as a 'normal state,' showing that they are no longer using these detainees for political, diplomatic purposes."
Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months, died shortly after he was returned to the United States in a coma in 2017.
In July, King had finished serving military detention and was at the airport awaiting U.S. military transport to his home unit in the United States. Instead, he left the airport and joined a tour of the border area, where he ran into North Korea despite attempts by South Korean and U.S. guards to stop him.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Evan Garcia and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul; Writing by Phil Stewart and Ed Davies; Editing by Neil Fullick, Toby Chopra and Don Durfee)