SEOUL, South Korea – More details emerged Thursday about the final months in South Korea of a U.S. soldier who defected across the border to North Korea as the isolated communist nation watched the situation in silence.
Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, 23, spent 48 days in a prison in Cheonan, about 50 miles south of the South Korean capital Seoul, after failing to pay a $4,000 fine for damaging public property, a South Korean government official told NBC News by phone Thursday.
According to legal documents, King was uncooperative when he was arrested by police last October after causing hundreds of dollars in damage to a police car and yelling profanities against Koreans and the Korean military.
“Each day Mr. King spent in jail cost 100,000 won,” or about $80, the official, who was not authorized to speak to the news outlet, said.
The incident is feared to escalate tensions between the US and North Korea, a repressive and nuclear-armed country still technically at war with the South. The US does not have an embassy in North Korea, complicating any negotiations over King’s arrival.
Defense Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Wednesday that U.S. officials had contacted North Korean officials about King but had received no response. “Not much is known about his condition,” Wormuth said at an Aspen security forum. I don’t think we have successfully met with the North Korean authorities.
Asked if the U.S. military considered King AWOL or a deserter, Wormuth said, “I’m not sure what to say.” Wormmouth King allegedly assaulted an individual in a South Korean prison, crossed into North Korea on purpose, and then returned to the United States, proving he failed military discipline.
“He was going to come back to the United States and face the consequences in the military,” she said. “I’m sure he was struggling with that. We don’t know exactly what was going through his mind.” “I’m worried about how he’s going to handle it, so I’d like to have him back,” Wormuz added.
Asked if King had shown signs of sympathy for the North Korean government, Wormuz said, “I don’t think we have any data that clearly indicates that.”
A senior administration official told NBC News on Tuesday that the United States immediately told North Korea’s king that they had deliberately crossed the border and were not acting under his orders. North Korea confirmed receiving the message but remained silent, the official said.
At a press conference later Wednesday, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh confirmed that the U.S. had been in contact with Sweden, and that the U.S. would maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea. The White House has also made other interagency efforts to reach out to the nation’s leadership.
The U.S. has yet to hear back from Pyongyang, meaning there are no updates on King’s condition or ways to contact him.
“We do not know his condition. We do not know where he is being held. We don’t know his health condition,” Singh said.
King, who was released from prison on July 10, was escorted by the military to Incheon International Airport outside the capital Seoul on Tuesday for further disciplinary action by the United States.
An airport official told NBC News on Thursday that King went to the gate but lost the travel documents needed to board the plane and was escorted out by an American Airlines employee.
He ended up visiting a joint security site on the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, where he crossed into the North, shocking the tourists around him.
“Nobody really knew what was going on until late at night,” Mikaela Johansson, who was on the tour, said Thursday. “It’s gone around the corner,” added the king.
“I thought, ‘This isn’t funny, it’s supposed to be a joke,'” she said.
An American Airlines source familiar with the situation confirmed that King was escorted from the departure gate.
Relatives of King told NBC News on Wednesday that he was grieving the death of his young cousin and acting out of sorts.
“It’s out of character,” said his uncle, Myron Gates. “I’ve never seen him go down like that.”
King is the first known American to be captured by North Korea in five years.
It was “absolutely possible” that North Korea would question King, said Mickey Bergman, executive vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, founded by Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent negotiator.
Bergman, who was involved in negotiations to return Otto Warmbier, a US college student who died after being captured by North Korea and returned to the United States in 2016, said the king said North Korea was determined to “resolve this problem.”
The United States has approximately 28,000 troops stationed in the South; The accord has been embroiled in a conflict with the North since it ended in armed conflict rather than a peace treaty 70 years ago this month.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com