Travis King spent 48 days in prison in South Korea before bolting across border to North
Stella Kim and Larissa Gao and Jay Blackman and Andrea Mitchell and Megan Lebowitz and Bianca Britton
SEOUL, South Korea — More details emerged Thursday about the last months in South Korea of a U.S. soldier who fled across the border to North Korea, as the isolated communist country remained silent on his status.
Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, 23, spent 48 days in a prison in Cheonan, a city about 50 miles south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, after he failed to pay a $4,000 fine on charges that included damaging public property, a South Korean government official told NBC News by phone on Thursday.
According to legal documents, King did not cooperate when apprehended by officers last October after causing hundreds of dollars in damage to a police patrol car while shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army.
“Each day Mr. King spent at the penitentiary was equivalent to about 100,000 won,” or about $80, said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the news media.
The incident threatened to worsen tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, a repressive and insular nuclear-armed nation still technically at war with the South. America does not have an embassy in North Korea, complicating any potential negotiations over King’s return.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Wednesday that U.S. officials had no new information. “Not very much is known about his status. He is being held by the North Koreans.” Wormuth, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, said that U.S officials had reached out to North Korean officials but received no reply. “I don’t think we have successfully made contacts with the North Korean authorities.” Asked if King was being considered AWOL or a deserter by the U.S. government, Wormuth declined to answer.
A senior administration official told NBC News on Tuesday that the U.S. immediately told North Korea that King had crossed the border willfully and was not acting on orders. North Korea confirmed receipt of the message but then went silent, the official said.
King, who was released on July 10, had been escorted by the military to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, the capital, on Tuesday for possible further disciplinary action in the United States.
An airport official told NBC News on Thursday that King went to his gate but was missing a travel document needed to board the plane and was escorted out by an American Airlines employee.
He ended up on a group tour of the Joint Security Area on the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, where he bolted across to the North to the shock of the tourists around him.
Mikaela Johansson, who was on the tour, said Thursday that “no one really figured out what was happening until it was too late.” She added that King just “disappeared around the corner.”
“I thought, ‘This is not funny, it must be a joke,’” she said.
An American Airlines source familiar with the situation confirmed that King was escorted from the departure gate.
King’s relatives told NBC News on Wednesday that he had been grieving the death of his young cousin and acting unlike himself.
“It’s out of his character,” his uncle Myron Gates said. “I’ve never seen him get down like that, ever.”
King is the first known American to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years.
It was “absolutely possible” that North Korea would interrogate King, according to Mickey Bergman, the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit corporation founded by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage negotiations.
North Korea may well conclude that King is troubled, decide “they don’t want to deal with this and return him or deport him,” said Bergman, who was involved in negotiations for the return of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who was detained in North Korea in 2016 and died after returning to the U.S.
The U.S. has about 28,000 troops stationed in the South, a treaty ally that has remained frozen in conflict with the North since the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty 70 years ago this month.