An Army private who fled to North Korea before being returned home to the United States earlier this month has been detained by the U.S. military, two officials said Thursday night, and is facing charges including desertion and possessing sexual images of a child.
The eight counts against Pvt. Travis King are detailed in a charging document seen by The Associated Press. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the charges have not been publicly announced.
King's mother, Claudine Gates, said in a statement that her son should be “afforded the presumption of innocence.” She said, “A mother knows her son, and I believe something happened to mine while he was deployed.”
Desertion is a very serious charge and can result in imprisonment for as much as three years.
King, 23, ran across the heavily fortified border from South Korea in July and became the first American detained in North Korea in nearly five years.
His sudden bolt into North Korea came after he had been released from a South Korean prison on July 10, where he had served nearly two months on assault charges. He was set to be sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced potential additional disciplinary actions and discharge.
Officials said King was taken to the airport and escorted as far as customs. But instead of getting on the plane, he left and later joined a civilian tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom. He ran across the border, which is lined with guards and often crowded with tourists, in the afternoon.
After about two months, Pyongyang abruptly announced that it would expel him. He was flown to an Air Force base in Texas.
At the time, officials said they did not know exactly why North Korea decided to let King go, but suspected Pyongyang determined that as a low-ranking serviceman he had no real value in terms of either leverage or information.
While he was gone, Army leaders declared him absent without leave, opting to not consider him a deserter, which is far more serious. By declaring King a deserter, the Army would have to conclude that King left and intended to stay away permanently. In times of war, desertion can carry the death penalty.
Service members can go AWOL for several days, but may return voluntarily. The punishment can include confinement in the brig, forfeiture of pay or dishonorable discharge and it is largely based on how long they were away and whether they were apprehended or returned on their own.
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