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Travis King, U.S. Army soldier who crossed into North Korea

Source: U.S. Army

The family of an American soldier who illegally crossed into North Korea is making an impassioned plea for his safe return as U.S. officials begin engaging the rogue nation that is known for torturing its captives.

Travis King is apparently being held prisoner in North Korea after witnesses say the 23-year-old Private 2nd Class in the U.S. Army on Tuesday ran while laughing across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) separating South Korea from North Korea. His actions followed his release from a South Korean prison.  His would-be return to the U.S. was thwarted when he left an airport in South Korea to join a group of tourists sightseeing at the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the MDL is.

Now, King’s mother and brother have joined his uncle in speaking out in hopes of having their loved one returned home.

“I just want my son back. Get my son home,” Claudine Gates is shown on video telling reporters visiting her home in Wisconsin on Wednesday. “Get my son home and pray that he comes back.”

When asked for further comment, a clearly emotional Gates said she had nothing more to say.

A man who identified himself as King’s brother said the family understands “the gravity of the situation” and asked the media to respect the family’s privacy during the trying time.

He said Gates “has lost a son before … so this is weighing very heavily on her.”

Eventually, he added, the family would formally address the media and asked reporters “to defer to the U.S. military and whoever’s handling” the international incident.


Diplomatic efforts begin

U.S. officials have reached out to North Korea in an effort to secure King’s “safety and return,” U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Sung Kim said on Thursday.

Sky News reported that Kim said the U.S. was “working very hard” to learn of King’s health and safety status in North Korea.

Reuters reported that King’s apparent defection to North Korea comes at a time of “heightened tensions around the Korean Peninsula” and on the same day that “a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine visited South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.”

Thus far, North Korea has not formally responded to American efforts at diplomacy. The nation, which has been largely isolated by the globe following multiple threats of nuclear aggression, test-launched two ballistic missiles on Wednesday in what could either be a response to King’s detention or just the latest instance display of its missile program.

U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday that Travis King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea.

The U.N. Command issued a similar statement.

“A U.S. national on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the U.N. Command said. “We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA [Korean People’s Army] counterparts to resolve this incident.”

View Of The Demilitarized Zone Between North And South Koreas After American Citizen Detained In North

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on July 19, 2023, in Paju, South Korea. | Source: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty

What happened?

King had recently been released from a South Korean prison on assault charges. He was behind bars for 48 days because he did not pay a $4,000 fine for damaging a South Korean police car and “shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army” while he was being arrested in October, NBC News reported.

Following King’s July 10 release from the prison in Cheonan, which is about 50 miles south of the capital city of Seoul, he was set to return to a military base in Texas where he was expected to be further disciplined for his actions in South Korea.

But after King was escorted to an airport outside of Seoul, he was not allowed to board his flight because he lacked the proper paperwork, prompting him to be removed from the airport.

Eight days later, King found himself embedded within the tour group visiting the JSA before he reportedly ran across the MDL while laughing. The Associated Press reported that King “sprinted” and “bolted” across the MDL.

A North Korean news outlet published a report pointing to a social media post from someone who claimed to have been on the same tour as King when he crossed into North Korea, where the accuracy of media services has long been questioned.

NKNews reported:

In a Facebook post, Mikaela Johansson of Sweden wrote that she was on the same tour and that one of the male guests dashed across the MDL when her group visited the Joint Security Area.

“To our right, we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from OUR GROUP that has been with us all day- runs in between two of the buildings and over to the other side!!” she wrote.

“It took everybody a second to react and grasp what had actually happened, then we were ordered into and through Freedom House and running back to our military bus.”

Johansson said authorities at the JSA asked visitors not to share pictures of the incident.


A village and a military guard post on the North Korean side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), are seen from South Korea’s Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju on July 19, 2023. | Source: JUNG YEON-JE / Getty

King may have been grieving

At the time of the crossing into North Korea, King was possibly having an ongoing emotional reaction to the death of his uncle’s young son months ago.

Carl Gates, whose sister is King’s mother, told the Daily Beast that the news had weighed heavy on the young soldier, particularly because he was abroad away from his family.

“It affected Travis a lot,” Carl Gates said.

He said King began acting “reckless” before the 7-year-old died and believes the North Korea incident is “related” to the death.

Carl Gates told the Associated Press that he doubted King “was in his right mind” when he crossed into North Korea.

“Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt nobody. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself,” Carl Gates added.

North Korea

Typically, if anybody crosses the demarcation line, it’s been North Koreans defecting to the South in an effort to flee the ruthless authoritarian government of leader Kim Jong Un, who has long been accused of human rights violations.

According to the U.S. Department of State, there is a travel ban for Americans entering North Korea.

“Do not travel to North Korea due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals,” the State Department says on its website. “Exercise increased caution to North Korea due to the critical threat of wrongful detention.”

Considering Kim is making the country’s diplomatic decisions, coupled with the fact that Travis King is a Black American, the racist leanings of the nation’s leader can’t be ignored. Lest we forget that Kim has defended calling Obama a “wicked black monkey” and befriended former U.S. President Donald Trump, who frequently espouses racist views.

Kim also has a checkered past when it comes to other forms of diplomacy with the U.S., including the handling of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released in a vegetative state following imprisonment in North Korea.


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