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US army charges Travis King with desertion for fleeing to North Korea

The US army has charged Pvt Travis King with crimes ranging from desertion for running into North Korea in July to assault against fellow soldiers and solicitation of child abuse images.

The army’s case against King, set out in documents seen by Reuters, includes eight distinct charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, setting up a substantial legal battle for the 23-year-old soldier after his release from North Korean custody in September.

The army did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement provided by a family spokesperson, King’s mother, Claudine Gates, expressed her unconditional love and asked that her son “be afforded the presumption of innocence”.

She said: “The man I raised, the man I dropped off at boot camp, the man who spent the holidays with me before deploying, did not drink. A mother knows her son, and I believe something happened to mine while he was deployed. The army promised to investigate what happened at Camp Humphreys and I await the results.”

For weeks, the army has deferred questions about whether King would face disciplinary action, saying its priority has been on ensuring the soldier received the proper care after being held for two months by North Korea.

His release by North Korea in September followed weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations that led the Swedish government to retrieve King in North Korea and bring him across the border into China for a handoff to the US ambassador.

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King was flown to a military hospital in Texas on 28 September for medical evaluations, including for his mental health.

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Details are still scarce about King’s treatment in North Korean custody and the soldier has not publicly explained why he fled to one of the world’s most reclusive nations on 19 July.

The army’s charge sheet accuses him of broad misconduct before that incident, including an attempted escape from US military custody on October 2022.

King was accused of soliciting a Snapchat user in July 2023 to “knowingly and willingly produce child pornography”. He was also accused of possession of such images.

He was also charged with insubordination for leaving his base after curfew and drinking alcohol in violation of army regulations.

King’s family has hired a legal team to defend him that includes Franklin Rosenblatt, who served as the lead military defence counsel during court martial proceedings against Bowe Bergdahl, the family’s spokesperson, Jonathan Franks, said in a statement.

Bergdahl was an army sergeant who was held for five years by the Taliban after walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

“I am grateful for the extraordinary legal team representing my son and I look forward to my son having his day in court,” Gates said in her statement

King, who joined the army in January 2021, had 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. Instead of paying a fine, King opted for more than a month in South Korean detention.

King had already been due to face disciplinary action in the US after his release from South Korean detention. He was on his way home when he slipped away from Seoul’s international airport and made his way to a civilian tour of the border area between North and South Korea.

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Then King sprinted across the border into North Korea. He was immediately taken into North Korean custody.

The third charge against King was desertion. The army said King left it in South Korea with the intention of staying away permanently “and did remain so absent in desertion until on or about 27 September 2023”.

Desertion is a very serious charge and can result in imprisonment for as much as three years. King is also accused of kicking and punching other officers last year, unlawfully possessing alcohol, making a false statement and possessing a video of a child engaged in sexual activity.

That allegation dates to 10 July, the same day he was released from a South Korean prison where he had served nearly two months on assault charges. A week later he dashed into North Korea.