Background Press Call by Senior Administration and Military Officials on the Return of Private King from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
9:30 A.M. EDT
MODERATOR: All right, we're going to go ahead and get started here. Thank you so much for your patience. This is [moderator]. So, good morning.
I've got good news to share this morning, attributable to a "U.S. official." I can immediately confirm that Private Travis King is in U.S. custody.
We are still going to proceed with this call as planned. So, from this point out, the remainder of the call will be held under strict embargo until we're able to offer confirmation that the subject of the call has arrived at a military installation.
Just again, off the record: This is ongoing, so, we're going to give you all a little bit more insight into some of the operational details, but those need to be held under a strict embargo for operational security reasons.
For planning purposes only, we believe that confirmation could come as soon as 10:30 a.m. ET today.
This call is attributable to "senior administration officials." For awareness but not for reporting, joining us on the call today is [senior administration official], [senior military official], and [senior administration official].
And with that, I'm going to hand it over to my colleague, [senior administration official], to share a few more details about what's taking place this morning.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Moderator], thank you so much. And thanks to you all for joining this morning. This is [senior administration official].
We are very pleased to announce this morning, although events are still ongoing, that the U.S. government has successfully facilitated Private Travis King's departure from the DPRK. His transfer culminates a months-long effort involving multiple U.S. government agencies, undertaken out of concern for Private King's well-being and a desire to reunite him with his family.
For the last many weeks, the U.S. government has been reaching out to the DPRK through multiple channels to ascertain his welfare and to try to secure his safe return home. That includes outreach at the United Nations and through our United Nations Command. It also includes ongoing work with the government of Sweden in its status as the protecting power of the United States and other countries who have diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
We have been in communication with Private King's family throughout this process.
I'm pleased to share this morning that Private King appears to be in good health and good spirits as he makes his way home.
We are grateful to the Swedish government for its diplomatic role in serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and to the government of the People's Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the safe transit of Private King.
I'll stop there for the moment, and I'll hand over to my colleague, [senior administration official], for some additional details on the diplomacy we conducted in the lead-up to today's events.
I think we're having trouble hearing you. Could you unmute yourself?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello. Hi.
MODERATOR: Loud and clear. Loud and clear.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you. This is [senior administration official]. And thanks to, [senior administration official], and thanks to all of you for joining.
We have been engaged in intense diplomacy since Private King entered the DPRK. And we have -- we, in the State Department, have made every effort and used every available diplomatic channel to urge the DPRK to release Private King and allow him to return home.
We have been in close touch with Sweden, in its status as the protecting power, engaging very much on a near-daily basis to make sure that -- that everything went smoothly. And we've also been working with other countries with diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
And we're really grateful for the partnership that we've had with our DOD and NSC counterparts.
And so, we have been -- we're looking forward to getting Travis King home. And we've been working -- State Department has also been working with Army and [senior military official's] team to make sure the family has been aware of what has been going on.
So, let me stop there and turn it over to [senior military official].
SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you. Good morning. Can you hear me?
SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
I would really like to just highlight that this was truly an extraordinary interagency effort and really an incredible example of teamwork, detailed planning and rehearsals, and flawless conduct of what I would say is a truly complex operation. And we are just incredibly happy to have Private King on his way home.
And I'm standing by to answer any of your questions.
Q: Sorry about that -- unmuting issue. You mentioned that China was helpful in assisting and facilitating the safe transit. Did China have any other role in mediating? And can you speak to what other countries with diplomatic relations with the DPRK that were involved?
And finally, can you offer any insight on to why Private King decided to enter North Korea? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll take that. You know, we -- we've been -- working primarily with Sweden in its role as the protecting power for the United States. And the PRC played a very constructive role in facilitating his transfer out of -- of the PRC -- of China.
And on -- and so, just -- I'll leave it at that. And -- and we're, as [senior military official] said -- that we're very happy to have him home.
Q: Thank you. Thanks for taking my question. [Senior administration official], I wonder if you can give some clarity in terms of the kinds of concessions. Were there any kinds of concessions that were given to DPRK? And if you know anything about what will happen next to Private Travis, in terms of, you know, his status with the military, if he's still being declared AWOL, and what happens next with him? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. In terms of the question on any concessions that may have been given, the answer is simple: There were none. Full stop.
On the question of next steps, our focus right now is on Private King's health and ensuring that he receives all appropriate support before reuniting with his family.
I'll pass to the [senior administration official] in just a moment for anything that he might like to add to that.
But before I do, I just want to add some additional detail to Aamer's previous question on the role of the PRC. I do want to acknowledge -- we want to acknowledge and be clear that Private King was transferred out of the DPRK across the DPRK's border with the PRC. The PRC played a role in facilitating that transfer but did not play another mediating role in these events.
I'll stop there and pass it to [senior military official].
SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, our focus within the military at this point is really caring for Private King and his family. And when he arrives on U.S. soil, he will be evaluated by some very talented, experienced -- an experienced team that are going to guide him through a reintegration process. They'll address any medical and emotional concerns and ensure we get him in a good place to reunite with his family.
As far as anything after that, again, our focus right now is caring for him and his family. And we'll work through all those administrative-status questions following the completion of his reintegration.
Q: Hey. Thanks for taking the question. So, wanted to see if you all got any additional insight into North Korea and their willingness to do business, in a sense, with the United States as a result of this, and if there is a prospect for any further talks with -- with them specifically?
And then if you could just confirm if there is the possibility of a court martial at the end of this for Private King. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, Trevor. This is [senior administration official]. I'm happy to take the first part of your question. The United States government remains very open to the possibility of diplomacy with the DPRK. And, again, very much appreciate the fact that we have this good news to share today.
This incident, to our minds, demonstrate that keeping lines of communication open even when ties are strained is a really important thing to do and can deliver results.
We, again, stand by, ready for any further diplomacy that might be possible. But for today, we are just focused on Private King's safe return to the United States.
I'll pass back to [senior military official] once more to see if there's anything he wants to add to this question.
SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Just to reinforce my previous comment: Again, we're going to focus, for the next several weeks or as long as it takes, to get Private King on good -- on solid footing. And then we'll address any administrative actions that may follow after the reintegration process. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Our next question will go to Jeremy with CNN.
Q: Hey, guys, thanks so much for doing this --
MODERATOR: Let me try that again and see if we can get Jeremy back. Just one moment.
Q: Hey, do you have me now?
MODERATOR: We've got you.
Q: Okay, great. So, first of all, in terms of North Korea and their decision-making here: Do you have any sense of why they chose to release Private King, you know, within just a couple of months and not choose to use him as a bargaining chip? Do you have a sense of whether Travis King wanted to return to the U.S. or whether he sought to remain in North Korea at any point?
And then, lastly, if you could just kind of take us through a tick-tock of, you know, when it became clear that Private King would be released, when the President was notified, et cetera. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can -- hey, thanks for that. This is [senior administration official]. As I said, we -- you know, we've been very much engaged in intense diplomacy and in working with our colleagues across the globe, especially in -- at Embassy Beijing.
And so, we wanted to -- you know, on the -- you know, I'll let the DPRK speak to -- speak for themselves. But we did learn via Sweden that the DPRK wanted to release Travis King earlier this month, and so we've been working very intensely since then.
And they -- and Sweden has played a real -- really vital role. I won't go into the tick-tock or any details of the way we were working this. But as you can imagine, in the -- (inaudible) in the depth of the interagency cooperation that needed to be happening and across the -- and across the globe or with the region to make sure that all of this went smoothly.
And, you know, we're absolutely grateful that -- for the PRC for facilitating his release and for the DPRK for releasing him and -- and absolutely to Sweden for their efforts to help us in this effort.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Jeremy, this is [senior administration official]. I'll just add to that that we can confirm that Private King was very happy to be on his way home. You know, that has been quite clear as we have resumed our contact with him. And he is very much looking forward to being reunited with his family. That is the sentiment that is pervading all else right now and is being, you know, reported by all of our diplomats.
You know, again, as [senior administration official] said, not going to get into the specific tick-tock. But I can confirm that as it became clear that our diplomacy was being reciprocated and that we might have an opportunity to return Travis King, all of our leadership across departments and agencies have been closely briefed and following events as they unfold. And, of course, that includes the President of the United States, who has been following this issue closely.
Q: And has the President spoken with Private King or his family? Or does he intend to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The -- we were able to connect with the family. And -- you know, and the family was able to speak with Travis King.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And, Jeremy, I don't have anything for you on the President's plans at this time. Thanks.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hey there. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Loud and clear.
Q: Okay. So, two things. One, [moderator], if you could -- I'm a little confused about the embargo situation and what is on the -- what is on the record, so --
MODERATOR: Yep. Can immediately confirm, attributable to a "U.S. official," that he's in U.S. custody. The rest of this is on background, attributable to "senior administration officials" and needs to be held for oper- -- operational security reasons under an embargo until he's, you know, essentially wheels down at a military installation. So --
Q: And at -- and you will let us know when that is, or --
MODERATOR: And I think it will be, you know, as this -- as this call ticks on, I think it will be sooner rather than later that you'll be hearing from me again.
Q: Okay. And then my -- my question is: Several of the speakers today have talked about a "super complex operation," and that -- and I think somebody said, "You could imagine how complicated this all was." I'm bad at imagining things, and I don't think we can ask our readers to imagine things. Is there any detail that you guys can provide about -- about, sort of, how he was transferred, where he -- I mean, since -- since this is not going to be released until he's on -- at a U.S. military base, I don't -- I don't understand why we can't get a little bit more detail about, kind of, how this all went down.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Michael, this is [senior administration official]. I'm happy to put sort of a finer point on some of the detail that I have already shared. But, again, we are still in the process of making diplomatic contacts with other parties, as well as ensuring the operational security of Private King and the folks who are undertaking this operation.
So, you know, we are going to go about as far as we can, under -- under those constraints. As I have already mentioned, the private was tran- -- was transferred out of the DPRK, across the border to China with the help of the government of Sweden.
The United States has been able to receive him in China and is now in the process of transferring him home.
The operational complexity that we're pointing to here, obviously, includes a few factors. It includes the fact that the Swedish government transited into the DPRK. It includes the fact that we had to, you know, be ready to receive him in the PRC. And it includes the fact that all of these pieces had to come together quickly and with the greatest concern for Private King's care and ensuring his safe and healthy transit home.
So, again, that's about all we can offer in terms of detail today, but I think everyone on the call appreciates that this is an unusual set of circumstances and, again, that the operational coordination that was required from our diplomats, from the members of our military, and from the partners with whom we worked on this operation was significant and extraordinary.
Q: (Referring to the audio connection.) Sorry, problems there.
You spoke to the issue a little bit, but I was just going to kind of expand a little bit on -- my question is like -- so, the role of the Chinese and the role of the Swedish here. Swedes went into DPRK to help facilitate and then transmit this guy into China and then -- where you guys are now receiving him.
Is there anything else you can expand upon, like what the role of the Swedes versus the Chinese were in, like, making this all happen? The Swedes, I assume, were the chief interlocutor here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. The Swedish were -- the Swedish play an important role. They're our protecting power, and they have been our primary interlocutor and are -- in -- in helping us get Private King out.
The PRC helped to facilitate the transfer but, as [senior administration official] noted, did not mediate by any means. And we are extremely grateful for the government -- to the government of Sweden for facilitating that.
As I mentioned, we learned about the DPRK wanting to expel Travis -- Private King through Sweden. And since then, State Department has been connecting with Sweden on a very regular basis, working out all of these details, and working with -- across the interagency, across multiple departments and agencies to make sure that all of the small pieces and the large pieces came together.
And, of course, we're very grateful for our colleagues at Embassy Beijing who helped to facilitate this as well and liaising with the Chinese government to make sure that everyone was squared away and we were all aligned on the outcomes that we wanted.
MODERATOR: All right. And with that, we'll conclude the call. We will provide notification when the operation is successfully completed and the embargo is lifted.
Thank you all for your time.
9:51 A.M. EDT
Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration and Military Officials on the Return of Private King from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365699