‘World of hurt.’ Will Travis King face charges for desertion, AWOL after bolting to North Korea?

WASHINGTON – Army Pvt. Travis King is out of North Korea, but he’s likely not out of trouble.

King, the soldier who sought refuge in one of the world’s most repressive regimes, returned to Fort Sam Houston in Texas on Thursday. Teams of doctors and mental health professionals there will examine him and put him through the Army’s reintegration process, a ritual with roots in treating POWs from Vietnam.

On the other side likely lies military sanction. Possible charges include being absent without leave (AWOL) to the more serious crime of desertion.

“He’s in a world of hurt,” said Sean Timmons, a former Army lawyer at the firm Tully Rinckey.

King, a cavalry scout, had served a jail term in South Korea after an altercation with police there this year, sources have told USA TODAY. He allegedly had kicked a squad car and chose to serve about 50 days of hard labor. This week, North Korea said they were expelling him from the country after completing an investigation. The country's official Korean Central News Agency claimed King confessed that "he illegally entered the territory of the Republic out of antipathy toward inhumane abuse and racial discrimination within the U.S. military, and disillusionment with the unequal American society."

Physical and mental health first. Then come the legal repercussions.

Repercussions for King will have to wait, Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters Thursday. The immediate focus will be on King’s physical and mental well-being after two months in North Korea, she said.

First, King will be assessed at Brooke Army Medical Center and experts at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. U.S. Army South is based there, and it receives troops and some civilians who have been held by hostile forces. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl received treatment there in 2014. He had left his post in Afghanistan, had been captured by the Taliban and spent five years in captivity.

Reintegration treatment includes three phases, according to the Army.

King is likely in the first phase, initial recovery, and receiving a medical examination and psychological assessment. The second phase includes a more thorough medical checkup, debriefings and “psychological decompression,” according to the Army. The final phase involves reuniting with family and continued physical and emotional care.

After his release from jail in July, King had been scheduled to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, for what the Pentagon has termed “administrative action.” That step is not intended to be punitive, and can include counseling, a reprimand or being kicked out of the service.

Bolting across the border into North Korea; Pentagon decides he is AWOL

Instead, King left the airport and joined a group touring the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, South Korea. Once there, King bolted across the heavily defended border into North Korea.

The Pentagon later determined that King, 23, had been AWOL. Punishments for being absent without leave vary depending on the circumstances and can include jail time, loss of rank and a dishonorable discharge. Conviction on the more serious charge of desertion can result in years of imprisonment.

The Army could seek more serious charges “to make an example of him,” Timmons said. There are about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and a harsh sentence would send a message not to repeat King’s action, he said.

No decision on punishment is likely soon, and will follow King’s reintegration program, Singh said. The process could take months.

Historical precedent for desertion to North Korea

There is precedent for a relatively light sentence for desertion to North Korea. Army Sgt. Charles Jenkins deserted to North Korea in 1965. He married a Japanese woman while there and moved to Japan in 2004. He pleaded guilty to desertion, aiding the enemy and was sentenced to 25 days in a U.S. military jail in Japan. He was also dishonorably discharged.

The number of troops who voluntarily go AWOL or desert each years is unknown, according to a study last year by the General Accountability Office. The services don't have full or reliable data on such absences, nor do they regularly report it to the Defense Department, the GAO found.

Cases of soldiers going AWOL or deserting are fairly common, but prosecutions are rare, said Don Christensen, the former top prosecutor for Air Force. Desertion seems "clear cut" in King's case, Christensen said.

A spokesman for King’s family said they would not have comment and asked for privacy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Could Travis King, back from N. Korea, face charges for going AWOL?