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North Korea expels U.S. soldier who crossed over from South Korea

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. soldier who ran across the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea is now back in U.S. custody. U.S. Army Private Travis King had been scheduled to return to the U.S. in August after serving time at a South Korean detention center. But at the airport he was separated from his military escort and joined a guided tour of a border village on the DMZ, where he ran across the heavily guarded border. North Korea's state-controlled media issued a statement then saying that King, who is Black, made the unauthorized crossing because he had experienced inhumane treatment and racism in the U.S. Army. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us now on the line from Seoul to fill us in on these new developments. Anthony, hello.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So Anthony, what did North Korea say about this case?

KUHN: So the official Korean Central News Agency issued a three-sentence report that said that North Korean authorities' investigation into King's case had concluded and that King had confessed to crossing the border into North Korea illegally because, as they had previously reported, they said King was disillusioned at inequality in U.S. society. It said that North Korean authorities plan to deport him, but they didn't make any mention of when or to where. We've since seen this report from the Associated Press that said that King was delivered into U.S. custody through China, but a lot of details still remain unclear.

MARTIN: Why do we think North Korea sent him back? I think many people will remember that they have a history of holding onto Americans seemingly on very little pretext.

KUHN: Well, yeah, American prisoners could be used for propaganda purposes. That's happened in the past. So they faced a choice whether to send him back or hang on to him. And what the report seems to suggest is they felt it wasn't worth it. Suppose he got sick and died. Suppose something happened to him. It could be, you know, not worth the cost. But, you know, they had said that he was open to seeking refuge in North Korea or a third country because of the issue of racism. So then the question is, then why would they send him back to face that? Wouldn't that be seen as inhumane? It raises other questions. Why send him north into China, as the AP report suggests, and not south back over the DMZ, where most of the U.S. military presence is? Does this suggest some sort of North Korean gesture to the U.S. as, you know, all diplomacy is essentially stalled? And could it have any ramifications for U.S.-China relations? We don't know.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more, if you would, about King's background or just remind us of what we know about King's background.

KUHN: Yeah. Travis King is from Racine, Wis. He joined the U.S. Army in 2021. He's a private second class and a cavalry scout. Now, last year, as we mentioned, he was detained and served jail term on charges of assault and damaging a police car. He was going to go back to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced possible punishment. So he seemed to be getting out of that. At the same time, King's uncle told U.S. media that he had suffered from racism in the U.S. military.

MARTIN: Anthony, briefly, has the U.S. government said anything more about King?

KUHN: Well, they did say that he clearly crossed the border without authorization. They were doing their best to get him back. But the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so they couldn't get access to him. And therefore they just couldn't verify what North Korea was saying about Travis King.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul about this very complicated case. Anthony, thank you so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.