US soldier Travis King, who fled from South to North Korea in July, is in American custody after being expelled by Pyongyang, officials say.
Pvt King was transferred into US custody in China before being flown to a US military installation.
The 23-year-old reconnaissance specialist illegally crossed into North Korea in July.
North Korean media said he had fled because of “inhuman treatment” and racism within the US military.
A senior administration official said on Wednesday that after months of “intense diplomacy” Pvt King had been returned to US hands and had spoken to his family.
“We can confirm Pvt King is very happy to be on his way home, and he is very much looking forward to reuniting with his family,” the official said.
“We are going to guide him through a re-integration process that will address any medical and emotional concerns and ensure we get him in a good place to reunite with his family.”
The official added that the US made no concessions to secure his release.
After being met by US officials in the Chinese border city of Dandong, Pvt King was taken by a state department aircraft to a US airbase in South Korea.
He was expected to return to US soil on Wednesday afternoon, according to state department spokesperson Matthew Miller.
Earlier on Wednesday, North Korea’s state-run news agency said the country had decided to remove Pvt King, without offering further details.
“The relevant body in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has decided to deport US soldier Travis King, who illegally entered the territory of the republic, in accordance with the laws of the republic,” it said.
Pvt King has been in the army since January 2021 and was in South Korea as part of a unit rotation.
Before entering North Korea, he had served two months in detention in South Korea on charges that he assaulted two people and kicked a police car. He was released from custody on 10 July.
He had been due to return to the US for disciplinary proceedings, but managed to leave the airport and join a guided tour of the border village of Panmunjom on the heavily guarded Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two countries. Pvt King crossed into North Korea while on the tour.
The senior administration official said that the immediate focus will be on getting him medically evaluated before any potential disciplinary and administrative actions.
According to the senior administration official, the US learned earlier this month that North Korea intended to release Pvt King.
Swedish officials travelled to North Korea and brought Pvt King to its border with China, where he was met by US ambassador Nicholas Burns. China played a “constructive role” but “did not mediate”, the official added.
“All these pieces had to come together quickly,” the US official said.
As the US and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang has traditionally negotiated on behalf of the US.
A Swedish embassy spokesman confirmed that the country had acted “within its role as a protective power” for the US in North Korea during the King case.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for Pvt King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said in a statement that she will “forever be grateful” to the US Army and its partners “for a job well done”.
The statement added that Pvt King’s family does not intend to give any interviews “for the foreseeable future”.
His relatives have previously told US media that he had experienced discrimination while serving in the US military.
They have said his mental health suffered during his time in South Korean custody.
In an interview with the Associated Press news agency last month, Ms Gates said her son had “so many reasons to come home”.
“I just can’t see him ever wanting to just stay in Korea when he has family in America,” she said.
Frank Aum, a North Korea expert at the Washington DC-based US Institute of Peace, said that Pvt King’s 71-day detention was “fairly typical” in cases of US citizens held in the country who “are not perceived to have committed a major crime”.
Some analysts had speculated Pyongyang might have opted to use the US soldier as a diplomatic bargaining chip.
In previous instances, North Korea has insisted a senior US representative travel to the country to negotiate any American detainee’s release, though there is so far no indication that happened in this case.
“They [North Korea] have believed that may be some way to help re-start talks,” said Mr Aum, who was previously a senior adviser on North Korea at the office of the US secretary of defence.
“But it didn’t seem like North Korea was interested in doing that this time. That may be a reflection of the fact that North Korea is not interested in engaging with the US at the moment.”
Mr Aum added that North Korean officials were also no doubt keen to avoid “reinforcing an international perception” that they are a major human rights violator making arbitrary detentions.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Wednesday that while the US “is open to diplomacy” with North Korea, the country’s government has repeatedly “rejected” the possibility.
Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence and CIA paramilitary officer, told the BBC it is a “good thing” that Pvt King was being returned to US custody, although he “is a young man that made some mistakes”.
“He is a US soldier and it was important that we did everything we could to bring him home,” Mr Mulroy added.