U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand guard at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, on April 3, 2017.

U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand guard at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, on April 3, 2017. (Sandra Garduno/U.S. Marine Corps)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — The Biden administration was skeptical of a state media report that a U.S. Army Pvt. Travis King was “disillusioned” by American society when he illegally crossed into North Korea last month.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday said the administration could not verify the report by the Korean Central News Agency and cautioned “everyone to consider the source.”

The KCNA report Wednesday was North Korea’s first acknowledgment that King, 23, was apprehended after leaving a tour group and crossing the line separating North and South Korea at the historic Joint Security Area last month. 

“We remain focused on his safe return, as we have been saying for these past several weeks, and we’re working through all available channels to achieve that outcome,” Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.

King said he was mistreated and racially discriminated against in the Army and had “expressed his willingness to seek refuge in [North Korea] or a third country,” according to KCNA. North Korean authorities were investigating King’s actions, the state-run media outlet reported.

Jean-Pierre said KCNA’s reporting could not be immediately verified or attributed to King.

The White House’s goal of returning King back to the United States remains unchanged despite the message from North Korea.

“None of it, it doesn’t change anything,” she said. “We want to make sure that he gets home safely.”

King’s family is “not at all convinced that that message … was legitimately Travis,” Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for King’s family and an advocate for captive Americans, told Stars and Stripes by phone on Thursday.

“I think there’s no way to be prepared for” KCNA’s characterization of King, he said. “Especially about your own loved one.”

King, a cavalry scout, dashed across the border during a U.N. Command-sponsored group tour July 18 of the heavily guarded Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a news briefing the next day described the crossing as “willfully and without authorization.”

Prior to entering North Korea, King spent six weeks in a South Korean prison on an October assault charge in Seoul, according to court records. 

King was released to the Army on July 10 and was booked on a flight from Incheon International Airport to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he faced possible disciplinary action by the Army.

King did not board the flight and instead traveled to Seoul, around 30 miles away, where he joined the DMZ tour that he booked in May, prior to his imprisonment, according to a report from the news website The Messenger.

Six days after King’s border crossing, British Lt. Gen. Andrew Harrison told reporters in a news briefing that the U.N. Command was in talks with North Korea’s army but declined to discuss specifics, citing ongoing negotiations. 

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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