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US soldier Travis King back home after release by North Korea

US Army Private Travis King landed at a military base in Texas early on Thursday, having been expelled from North Korea two months after dashing across the heavily militarised Korean border in July, a US defence official said.

A US military flight with King on board landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston at about 5.30am GMT, the official said.

Television footage showed a group of people leaving a plane at the base at that time. King is expected to be examined at the Brooke Army Medical Center at the base. Basketball star Brittney Griner was treated there in December after a prisoner swap with Russia ended her 10 months in detention.

The US government has said King would first undergo evaluation then a reintegration process so he can be reunited with his family. King, 23, ran into North Korea from the South on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the heavily fortified border and was immediately taken into North Korean custody.

It was unclear if King will face disciplinary action by the US Army, which has treated his case with care. It has so far not called him a deserter, though he crossed the border without authorisation while on active duty.

For its part, North Korea appears to have treated his case as one of illegal immigration.

Its KCNA state news agency said King told authorities he entered North Korea illegally because he was “disillusioned about unequal US society”.

The Swedish government, which represents US interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic presence in the country, retrieved King in North Korea and brought him to China.

The State Department said the US ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, met King in Dandong, China, a city bordering North Korea. King then flew to Shenyang, China, and on to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea before continuing his journey back to the US.

‘Unfit for propaganda’

King, who joined the army in January 2021, faced two allegations of assault in South Korea. He pleaded guilty to assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans, according to court documents. He had been due to face more disciplinary measures in the US.

North Korean authorities appear to have concluded King’s criminal background made him “unfit” for propaganda purposes, said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea could have decided to release King relatively quickly after seeing little advantage in keeping him,” Yang said. Keeping him longer, Yang said, could have risked another incident like that of Otto Warmbier, a US college student who died shortly after he was returned to the US from imprisonment in North Korea.

“So they might have just opted to use it as a chance to highlight themselves as a ‘normal state’, showing that they are no longer using these detainees for political, diplomatic purposes,” Yang said.

Jenny Town, director of the Washington-based North Korea project 38 North, doesn’t believe the incident will reopen the door to stalled US-North Korea diplomacy aimed at scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programmes, though she said it might reflect a slightly improving mood in US-China relations, given China’s co-operation in King’s return.

While King was en route home North Korea said it had adopted a constitutional amendment to enshrine its policy on nuclear force, and its leader Kim Jong Un pledged to accelerate production of nuclear weapons to deter what he said were US provocations.

“While the rhetoric back and forth gets more muscular and the regional arms race rages on, there is little room for direct diplomacy, especially on nuclear issues,” Town said.

China’s foreign ministry said North Korea and the US had requested assistance for King’s return in a humanitarian spirit. In July, King had finished serving military detention in South Korea and was at the airport awaiting military transport to his home unit in the US. Instead, he left the airport and joined a tour of the border area, where he ran into North Korea despite attempts by South Korean and US guards to stop him.