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The American soldier who crossed into North Korea from South Korea in July has been returned and is being held in custody in his home country, according to a US official.
Earlier on Wednesday North Korea’s official news agency KCNA had announced that army private Travis King was to be expelled from the communist state.
The return marked an end to a bizarre incident that had added a potential complication to already tense relations between Pyongyang and the US and its ally South Korea.
King’s flight to North Korea had sparked intense international speculation as to the motives of the 23-year-old serviceman from Wisconsin.
KCNA said on Wednesday that Pyongyang had ended an investigation into the border crossing incident and claimed that King had harbored negative feelings about alleged inhumane treatment and racial discrimination in the US army.
KCNA added that King was “disillusioned about the unequal US society”. It gave no details of the events surrounding his expulsion.
King dashed across the border on July 18 during a guided tour of a “joint security area” between the two Koreas.
The soldier was one of about 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, and had been due to fly to Dallas for military disciplinary proceedings the day before his crossing. He had previously been held in South Korean custody for assault and criminal damage.
After weeks of silence on the incident, Pyongyang said last month that King was being held in detention. He was the first US citizen confirmed to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years. Pyongyang also said King had been seeking asylum in North Korea or a third country.
US officials have been concerned about King’s well-being, given North Korea’s harsh treatment of some American detainees in the past. US student Otto Warmbier was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster. He was held for 17 months before being released and returned to the US in a coma. He died a week later.
North Korea has provided no information about King’s health nor how he has been treated.
The decision to release King comes as South Korea’s conservative government plans to step up criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record. The UN Security Council in August held its first discussion since 2017 on human rights in the isolated state.
It was not clear why North Korea had decided to expel King and how his return was arranged. Sweden has in the past represented US interests in Pyongyang as there are no formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang. But most diplomats from western countries have left Pyongyang since the country was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
About 20 US citizens have been detained by North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean war, with Pyongyang using many of them for propaganda purposes. Those who eventually left have often been handed over to high-level US delegations who were visiting the country.
North Korea is now embarking on a beleaguered reopening from some of the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions in the world, ending a years-long period of self-imposed isolation.