A US soldier who ran across the border into North Korea is now back in American hands and “very happy” to be heading home, according to officials.
Private Travis King’s transfer out of the totalitarian state was described as “truly complex” and involving “intense diplomacy”.
Sweden was the key intermediary in getting him released, said senior US officials, with Private King crossing the border into China on Wednesday.
North Korea said earlier in the day that it planned to deport him after 71 days in custody.
It is unclear why the the 23-year-old, who had been serving with the army in South Korea, ran across the border during a group trip to a border village in July.
Private King could face disciplinary proceedings such as military jail or being dishonourably discharged for doing so.
US officials would not comment on what action he might face, but were clear no concessions were made to get him released.
Some commentators had expected North Korea to use the soldier as propaganda or as a bargaining chip to get relief on economic sanctions.
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Officials told reporters Private King was in “good health and good spirits” and was being flown back to a US military base, understood to be in Texas.
The soldier, who is from Wisconsin, was the first American confirmed to have been detained in North Korea in five years.
One of the last to be detained, college student Otto Warmbier, was released in a coma in 2017 and later died.
Private King is said to have already spoken with family and will under go a “reintegration process to address any medical and emotional concerns”.
“We can confirm [he] was very happy to be on his way home,” said a senior US official – speaking to reporters at a National Security Council briefing.
“He is very much looking forward to being reunited with his family.”
North Korea’s news agency has claimed Private King crossed the border due to “ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the US Army, and said he told them he was “disillusioned about the unequal US society”.
US officials said they had been working “very intensely” since hearing – via Sweden – that they wanted to release Private King earlier this month.
They praised their ally for playing “a real really vital role”.
Sweden is America’s “protecting power” in North Korea, handling any serious matters involving its citizens, because the US has no embassy or consulate there.
China also helped facilitate the transfer but didn’t play any mediation role, officials added.