(CNN) — A day before crossing into North Korea, U.S. soldier Travis King sent a text message to his U.S. military supervisors.
King was a junior soldier assigned to the U.S. Army in Korea He faced assault charges in South Korea and was scheduled to be discharged from the US Army upon return to Fort Bliss, Texas.
But while going through customs, he did not board the plane as scheduled on Monday, US officials told CNN. His entourage was unable to escort him to the departure gate to verify that he had boarded. Instead, he had booked a tour on Tuesday with a private company from the Joint Security Area inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
King checked into a Dallas-bound American Airlines flight but reported missing his passport and did not board.
“He went through all the security checks to the departure gate, but he told the flight staff that his passport was missing,” an Incheon airport official told CNN. The official said the flight attendants then escorted him out of the departure area.
On Monday, the American Airlines flight departed Incheon at 6:36 p.m., the airline said.
“He returned to the departure area of the airport at 7:02 pm,” the official said. American Airlines declined to comment to CNN on the incident.
If after the immigration process passengers have emergency circumstances that prevent them from boarding the flight, they must withdraw the procedure under the approval of the immigration office.
While on a tour inside the demilitarized zone the next day, King fled across the demarcation line into North Korea, a witness on the same tour and U.S. officials familiar with the case told CNN. Unlike the 260 km long and 4 km wide Strongly Protected Areas, the de facto demarcation line between North and South Korea within the Joint Security Area does not have a physical barrier.
A U.S. official said the king first tried to enter Panmunjok Hall in North Korea’s Joint Security Area. But with the front door locked, he ran to the back of the building, at which point North Korean guards loaded him into a van and took him away, the official said.
“Get him,” shouted a soldier on the South Korean side, according to witness Sarah Leslie. But it was too late.
“He was going so fast, we were so close to the border and he was already gone,” added Leslie.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, when King failed to report to Fort Bliss, that the U.S. military first learned of his disappearance. South Korean immigration officials also confirmed to the U.S. that King did not board the plane, the U.S. official told CNN.
US government officials are now trying to piece together what prompted King, an American citizen, to enter one of the world’s most hostile countries voluntarily and without prior permission.
On Wednesday, the White House said it was still working to determine where King was and what his condition was.
“We’re still gathering all the facts, and it’s still early,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The administration has worked and will continue to work diligently to ensure his safety and the return of Private Raja to us and his family,” he said.
Jean-Pierre said the administration was working with Sweden and the South Korean government on the matter. Sweden usually represents US interests in North Korea, as the US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations.
Officials said the U.S. military has tried to contact the North Korean government directly to resolve the issue, but has so far received no response. The US believes he is still in North Korean custody, but there are no details on his condition or whether he is alive.
King “ran through the demilitarized zone in the Joint Security Area, was captured by the North Koreans, and we have no contact at this time,” said John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command. Tuesday at the Aspen Conservation Forum. “But we are still carrying out our investigation to find out what happened.”
Allegations of attacks in South Korea
A week before crossing the border, King was released from a detention center in South Korea, where he had served 50 days of forced labor, security officials told CNN.
The conviction appears to stem from an October 2022 incident in which King allegedly pushed a victim and punched him in the face several times at a club in Mapo-gu, Seoul, according to a court document from the Seoul Western District Court. He was charged with assault in September and later transferred to the US Military Police, but those charges were eventually dropped.
“His assault case was similar to other cases I’ve dealt with involving young drunks,” a South Korean lawyer representing King told CNN. His impression of King was that he “looked like a normal guy in his 20s,” he said.
Before King was in detention, a security official told CNN that King had been convicted during a military court hearing in South Korea on assault and other charges. King has been demoted, the official said, though it’s unclear whether that happened before or after the court-martial.
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC on Tuesday that she was “shocked” that King had entered North Korea.
“I can’t see Travis doing that,” Gates told ABC, adding that he heard from his son several days ago that he was going back to his base at Fort Bliss.
During his rotation in South Korea, King was not deployed on his record and was assigned to 6th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas. .
His military awards include the usual decorations awarded to soldiers of his rank and experience: the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal, and the Foreign Service Ribbon.
— CNN’s Yoonjung Seo, Oren Liebermann, Dugald McConnell and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.
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