WASHINGTON - A U.S. Army private who mysteriously sprinted across the border into North Korea last month has "so many reasons to come home," his mother said Wednesday as she cast doubt on a recent statement that suggested her son, Travis King, might be seeking refuge there or in a third country.
Claudine Gates spoke to The Associated Press one week after North Korea released the statement through its state media in which it confirmed for the first time that it had detained the soldier and attributed comments to him criticizing the United States.
"I just can’t see him ever wanting to just stay in Korea when he has family in America. He has so many reasons to come home," Gates, from Racine, Wisconsin, said.
King, 23, had served in South Korea and sprinted into North Korea while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18. U.S. officials have said they are working to get him home.
The official Korean Central News Agency said King, who is Black, had said he decided to enter North Korea because he "harbored ill feelings against inhuman mistreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army." The report also said that King had said he "was disillusioned at the unequal American society" and had expressed his willingness to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country.
U.S. officials last week said they were unable to verify the comments attributed to him, while White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters to "consider the source." KCNA is the official voice of leader Kim Jong Un’s government and its content reflects North Korea’s official line that the United States is an evil adversary.
Gates, in the interview with AP, said she had never heard her son express the sentiments attributed to him.
"My son, he was proud to be American. He’s not even a racist type of person. That’s why I can’t see him saying that," she said. But she added that "I was kind of told that he said a little something like that to his uncles" and that "their approach with him was a little different than me. I’m mom."
Gates said she remains perplexed by her son’s actions. Birthdays are major milestones in the family, she said, and she couldn’t imagine her son willfully missing an opportunity to speak with her on July 26, her birthday.
She noted that in the months before his dash across the border to North Korea, he had become significantly less communicative than in his early days in the Army. Family members have previously said that he may have felt overwhelmed as he faced legal troubles and his possible looming discharge from the military.
King was supposed to be returned to the U.S. to face military discipline after serving nearly two months in a prison in South Korea on assault charges. But instead of boarding a flight for Texas, as planned, King slipped away and quietly joined a civilian tour group headed for the Demilitarized Zone, which divides South and North Korea.
No matter the issue, Gates said, talking directly to her son, "I’m not mad at you, Travis. I just want you to come home. He has a whole life ahead of him. He’s still a young man. I just want my baby home."