A relative of Travis King, the 23-year-old American citizen who crossed into North Korea on Tuesday, fears his last conversation with the U.S. Army private sent him over the edge and across the border of the Korean Peninsula.
Carl Gates, King’s first uncle on his mother’s side of the family, told The Daily Beast that he had an emotional conversation with King when the soldier reached out over the phone to check in on him the weekend before the defection.
“I was basically shitting on the family for not being here for me… when my son was going through what he was going through. And, and so I really didn’t have any encouraging words to give him because I’ve been upset with the family,” Gates said, referring to the recent death of his 7-year-old son. “He was saying that he was sorry, he loved us all. And that he is sorry that he couldn’t be here for me.”
Gates—who said he always made it a priority to support King, “babysitting and changing diapers” in the absence of his biological father—lost his young son, King’s first cousin, in February this year from a rare genetic disorder. The tragedy sparked tensions within the larger family—and deeply affected King, who “snapped” and began acting out in the aftermath of his cousin’s death, his uncle said.
“Me giving him what hurts me right now, I feel like I gave him bad feedback, bad intel on a family,” said Gates of their last conversation, explaining that he feared his words had sent King into an emotional spiral of questioning whether his own family would “have his back” as he served overseas.
“I didn’t give my nephew a loving welcome, like ‘Everything is good with the family, they’ve been supportive!’ And this and that. I was more like: ‘fuck the family, there weren’t here for me, they weren’t here for your cousin.’ And I don’t know man. Maybe that triggered him to say, the hell with everything.”
“That’s what hurts me,” he said through tears, adding that King had joined the army to make his family proud. I said the wrong thing. Instead of giving him words of comfort, I gave him words of: ‘Rebel! Rebel against the family. Fuck everybody, there ain’t nobody here for us anyway.”
King’s crossing into North Korea came after the army private had spent nearly two months detained in Korea over disciplinary issues. He was reportedly facing two assault allegations among other alleged transgressions in recent months.
The soldier, a cavalry scout who had been serving in the army since 2021, was scheduled to travel back to Fort Bliss, Texas on Monday. Officials told CBS that instead of boarding his flight, the army private–who was escorted to customs and went through airport security–left the airport and joined an organized tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea.
“I definitely blame myself.”
King was initially behaving normally on Tuesday, according to witness accounts from civilians who were part of the same group. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he started “running very, very fast towards the North Korean side,” one tourist told Sky News. “I thought it was some kind of stupid stunt that he was doing for TikTok or something like that. I thought that was an incredibly stupid thing to do in a place like that.”
In the aftermath of the incident, the United Nations command, which operates the DMZ, released a statement stating: “A U.S. National on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident.”
In later comments on Wednesday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration was working with South Korea on the issue of King’s unauthorized crossing, adding that the “primary concern at this time is ascertaining his well-being and getting to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
For King’s uncle Gates, the fear that he may have inadvertently set his nephew off has compounded the grief of losing his own son. “I definitely blame myself. And I gave him poor feedback and instead of sucking it up and going through my trauma, I put that on him. I didn’t give him anything positive to come home,” he said.
Speaking about what he wished he said in his last conversation with King, Gates said that he wished he told his nephew “that the family and everything was good and peaceful. Make it home safe, and we are there for him—me and my sister Claudine,” referring to King’s mother, who Gates said had supported her during the loss of his child.
“He’s like a son to me. And he always will be. And I’m even more broken to pieces because we still grieve. The family is still grieving the loss of my son,” Gates said. “And now we don’t know what’s going on with him. We might not ever see him again. No telling what they’ll do to him over there.”