U.S. Private Travis King is “very happy” to be out of North Korean custody, after he slipped over the border into the Hermit Kingdom and was detained in July, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
Officials who were in touch with King as he traveled back to the U.S. via China said his enthusiasm for being out of North Korea was “quite clear,” the official told reporters on Wednesday.
There’s been little word on exactly how King was treated during his time in North Korean custody. But it’s unlikely to have been fun. The U.S. and North Korea remain locked in a tense standoff, and conditions in the country, already notoriously difficult, have been looking particularly grim lately. North Korea is currently undergoing a period of heightened repression of human rights, as its population grows more desperate in the face of starvation and economic instability, United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk said in August.
King’s return to the U.S. represents a surprise ending to his two months in detention inside the secretive country. North Korean official state media earlier announced that the country had made a decision “to expel” King after supposedly completing an investigation.
Some observers had expected North Korea to use him as a diplomatic bargaining chip and engage in drawn-out negotiations for his return. Instead, a senior U.S. official said there are “no conditions” on his release.
For now, North Korea’s motivations remain murky. The country reached out via Sweden to let the U.S. know that it wanted to release King earlier this month, a U.S. official said. The U.S. then entered into a phase of intense diplomacy aimed at securing his release.
King bolted over the security line during a tour of the Joint Security Area, known as the JSC, in July. His thinking remains mysterious, but just a week before he fled, he was released from a detention facility in South Korea, where he did 50 days of labor. He was about to board a plane for Texas where he’d face disciplinary procedures.
Officials are focused now on King’s physical and mental health as they prepare to reunite him with his family. It’s not yet clear what kind of administrative or disciplinary actions he might face following his unusual conduct.
“He is very much looking forward to being reunited with his family,” a senior U.S. official said. “That is the sentiment that is pervading all else right now.”
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