RACINE - The mother of the Racine soldier being held by North Korean authorities made a plea for his safe return Wednesday.
"I just want my son back. Get my son home. Get my son home and pray, pray that he comes back," said Claudine M. Gates as she stood on the porch of her home.
Others who were with Gates declined to give their names, but spoke warmly of the soldier, U.S. Army Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King.
"We've observed the process of doing this right now. That's all she wants," said an older man who accompanied Gates.
"He's a good, young man. He's a good, young man," the older man said. "Nobody ever expected this out of him. He's a good young man who's always been a solid family man."
King bolted into North Korea while on a public tour of the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday, a day after he was supposed to travel to a base in the U.S. He was released from a South Korean prison on July 10 after serving two months for assault and was scheduled to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge.
In Racine, a man who identified himself as King's brother said, "We respect, we understand the gravity of this situation. It's a very massive and unfortunate thing."
He asked for privacy and said the family would defer to the U.S. military.
"We'll be more talkative maybe at some point, but we just want to see where it goes from here," he said.
"There's nothing that we're going to say that's going to change anybody's opinion they already have on my brother," he said.
"If he makes it out, he can speak for himself," he added.
What is the White House saying about Travis King's detention in North Korea?
North Korea stayed silent Wednesday about the detention of King.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. government was working with its North Korean counterparts to “resolve this incident.”
The American-led U.N. Command said Tuesday that the U.S. soldier was believed to be in North Korean custody.
Who is U.S. Army Pvt. Travis King?
King, a 23-year-old cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division, was supposed to leave Monday for Texas. He was escorted as far as customs but left the airport before boarding his plane.
It wasn’t clear how he spent the hours until joining the tour in the border village of Panmunjom and running across the border Tuesday afternoon. The Army released his name and limited information after King’s family was notified. A number of U.S. officials provided additional details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
One woman who was on the tour with King said she initially thought his dash was some kind of stunt – and that she and others in the group couldn’t believe what happened.
King’s stint in prison was not the first time he faced legal trouble in South Korea.
In February, a court fined him 5 million won ($3,950) after he was convicted of assaulting an unidentified person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October, according to a transcript of the verdict obtained by The Associated Press.
The ruling said King had also been accused of punching a 23-year-old man at a Seoul nightclub, though the court dismissed that charge because the victim didn’t want King to be punished.
King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, said his grandson joined the Army roughly three years ago because he “wanted to do better for himself.” He was drawn to service because he has a brother who is a police officer and a cousin in the Navy, Gates said.
Gates said he hoped his grandson, a 2020 graduate of Park High School in Racine, could be brought home to get help.
“I think right now he might have a problem or something. I can’t see him doing that intentionally if he was in his right mind,” Gates said.
Have other Americans been held captive before in North Korea?
King is the first known American held in North Korea in nearly five years. Each detention has set off complicated diplomatic wrangling, and this one comes at a time of elevated animosity. On Wednesday, North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles into the sea in an apparent protest of the deployment of a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time in decades.
“It’s likely that North Korea will use the soldier for propaganda purposes in the short term and then as a bargaining chip,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea.
It’s rare for Americans or South Koreans to defect to North Korea, but more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to escape political oppression and economic difficulties since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Tae Yongho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, said North Korea is likely pleased to have “an opportunity to get the U.S. to lose its face” because King’s crossing happened on the same day the U.S. submarine arrived in South Korea.
Tae, now a South Korean lawmaker, said North Korea was unlikely to return King easily because he is a soldier from a nation technically at war with North Korea, and he voluntarily went to the North.
Panmunjom, located inside the 248-kilometer-long (154-mile-long) Demilitarized Zone, has been jointly overseen by the U.N. Command and North Korea since the close of the Korean War.
In recent years, some American civilians have been arrested in North Korea on allegations of espionage, subversion and other anti-state acts, but were released after the U.S. sent high-profile missions to secure their freedom.
In May 2018, North Korea released three American detainees who returned to the United States on a plane with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a short period of warm relations. Later in 2018, North Korea said it expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance. Since his deportation, there have been no reports of other Americans detained in North Korea before Tuesday.
Those releases stood in striking contrast to the fate of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died in 2017, days after he was released by North Korea in a coma following 17 months in captivity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report