Frustration and Questions Swirl for Family of Soldier Who Ran into North Korea

U.S. soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station
A TV screen shows a file image of American soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The family of Army Pvt. Travis King -- the soldier who ran across the border into North Korea in mid-July -- say they've heard nothing from the military since they were first informed of the incident.

As the rest of the world watches perplexed, they are also left with questions about what the young soldier did in the months before he made the choice to run across the border from South Korea, a longtime U.S. ally, and into the hands of one of the world's most brutal and secretive regimes.

"It's now been 16 or 17 days, and they have no information and they feel like they've just been completely left to the wolves," Jonathan Franks, a newly appointed spokesman for the family, told in a phone interview Friday.

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"They are frustrated at the inability to get any information other than from reporters' articles," Franks added.

In the days leading up to his sudden flight to North Korea, King, 23, had just been released from a South Korean prison and was set to fly back to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face additional military discipline. Instead, he somehow ended up on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom, a major tourist attraction, where he proceeded to dash into North Korea on July 18.

Franks said that the first -- and only -- contact the family had with the military was when an Army noncommissioned officer called King's mother to notify her of the incident. Franks said she remembered it being a sergeant, though he concedes that in the emotion of the moment, she may not have remembered accurately.

King's "mom was kind of distraught, understandably," he said, adding that "she can't remember exactly what was said" on the call. reached out to the Army for a comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

On July 21, three days after news of King's run into North Korea broke, the family, through the Army, said they would not be doing interviews and asked for privacy.

Finally, on Aug. 1, the Pentagon announced that North Korea had acknowledged the United Nations Command's inquiries about King. But Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the chief spokesman for the Defense Department, said he didn't have "any substantial progress to read out."

Franks announced that he is representing King's immediate family Thursday evening on social media and said they have had questions not only about the young soldier's condition but his behavior while stationed in Korea.

"He did not have these problems where he was stationed last," said Franks, who traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to speak with the family in person. "The last time the family laid eyes on him prior to his deployment [to South Korea], he was happy, he was fine, he was talking about a long-term career in the Army."

According to Franks, "there was just a cluster of problems in the fall of '22" and "everything goes to hell."

But one person connected to King's family, who spoke under condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss family matters, said that this period roughly coincided with a time when everyone was deeply emotional over the death of King's little cousin.

However, even on top of those emotions, this person had preexisting doubts of whether King was stable enough for military life.

"I know Travis enough to personally say he should have never been accepted into the Army nor sent overseas," the person connected to the family said. "He is a quiet kid, but if he is triggered, he has a hard time self-controlling."

Franks said that the idea that King had a hard time exhibiting self control is "inconsistent" with what his mom and grandparents recall.

Regardless, no one is denying that King ran afoul of the South Korean legal system in the fall of 2022.

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that King was accused of assault on Sept. 25, 2022, according to court records reviewed by the paper, and Seoul police alleged he pushed and punched a patron at a Mapo bar who refused to buy him a drink.

Franks said the family is "horrified" at the allegation, and part of their desire to know more about King's time in Korea is to offer an apology. However, King's mom also wants to know -- "was my son provoked?" he added.

Several outlets also reported that King was arrested just before 4 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2022, in Mapo and placed in a police car, where he proceeded to cause several thousand dollars worth of damage. He also went on an anti-Korean rant.

After he failed to pay a fine stemming from that incident, he was sent to prison. However, according to the family, that didn't cause the messages from him to stop.

Franks says that while the family was in touch with King throughout his time in South Korea, "his messages became ominous."

"Some of them were received while he's allegedly in South Korea in prison doing hard labor," Franks said, before noting that he's personally seen them.

The family now wonders whether all the messages they've received from King were indeed written by him, which is another reason they are frustrated over the lack of communication from the Army.

"We have information relevant to the investigation. ... These people would like to be good citizens and provide it … in exchange for real constructive, two-way engagement with the military," Franks said.

Franks says that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- a man who has negotiated with North Korea on numerous occasions and helped arrange prisoner releases from other countries -- has agreed to help in their case.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: 'He's in a Real Bad Place': US Makes Little Progress in Getting Pvt. Travis King Back from North Korea

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