The United States is not aware of the location or well-being of the American soldier who fled to North Korea earlier this week, the White House said Thursday.
Travis King, a Private 2nd Class in the Army, is believed to be in North Korean custody after it was revealed he “willfully” crossed into the country earlier this week, reportedly sprinting from a tour on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone.
“We don’t know where he is. We don’t know the conditions in which he’s living in right now,” White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby said during a briefing with reporters.
“We’re still doing everything we can to try to find out his whereabouts, his well-being and condition and making it clear that we want to see him safely and quickly returned to the United States,” Kirby continued.
“We don’t have any updates to share with you — again, not for lack of trying. We just don’t have anything.”
Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh later told reporters that the whereabouts of King are unknown, as North Korea hasn’t responded to U.S. outreach.
“Unfortunately, no, we have not heard any communication or correspondence from the North Koreans on this incident,” she said.
“We want to bring him home. We don’t know his condition, we don’t know where he’s being held, we don’t know the status of his health, but we are working with the interagency through the DOD, through the [National Security Council] and State, really pulling all levers of government here to try and find out more,” Singh added.
And State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Thursday that King’s case is “an extremely high priority” and that messages have been relayed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the formal name for the North Korean government.
But he would not discuss if there was any response.
Miller also did not confirm if the DPRK received the message sent by the U.S. but said officials are “confident that we have the ability to send them messages.”
The Pentagon has identified King as a junior enlisted soldier who was the recipient of a handful of awards but also confirmed that he was the subject of disciplinary action, and his fleeing into North Korea occurred as he was supposed to be heading back to the U.S. to face charges.
American military police reportedly accompanied King to an airport in South Korea and watched him pass through customs before he texted his handlers that he was at the gate and preparing to board.
But instead, King booked a ticket, to a South Korean tour to the demilitarized zone with North Korea, and he joined from the airport. The area, known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), is one of the only places to have an opening into North Korea along the nearly 160-mile, fortified border between the two countries, which technically remain at war.
Singh said King wasn’t in custody as he was going through the airport, so he was not being escorted on or off his intended flight. She also noted that his escorts were not allowed to go beyond security.
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King was leaving his deployment after he had “faced consequences in Korea” and served time in a correctional facility and was also “facing additional administrative action,” back stateside, according to Singh.
According to NBC News, King had spent 48 days in a South Korean prison after failing to pay a fine on charges including damaging public property.
Singh added that the Army has launched an investigation into how King was able to slip across borders, with Army counterintelligence personnel leading the effort in coordination with U.S. Forces Korea.
“We don’t know his motivations for why he did not board the plane. We don’t know what he did in the hours between when he left the airport and when he crossed over into the DPRK,” she said. “We have snippets of time and understand — we’ve seen some of the publicly reported imagery of him taking the tour — what time that was, but beyond that window of … what he did during the time that between when he left the airport and the tour, that’s something that the investigation is going to have to look into.”
Miller said that there’s no reason to believe King had any communication with North Korean officials before he crossed.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have heightened recently, with the isolated, East Asian nation under intensive international sanctions for its illicit nuclear weapons program, its cyberhacking for financing and its weapons supplies to Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Caleigh Kelly contributed. Updated at 3:37 p.m. ET.
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