US soldier ‘willfully’ crossed into North Korea: Official

UN Command says it believes the person is in custody after crossing into North Korea without approval.

A man detained in North Korea is a United States soldier who entered the country “willfully and without authorization” by crossing the military demarcation line, according to officials.

The United Nations Command, which has helped oversee the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea since an armistice ended fighting in the 1950-1953 Korean War, said on Tuesday the individual had been taking part in a tour when he crossed into North Korea.

“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),” the command said, referring to North Korea’s official name.

“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” the UN Command added, referring to North Korea’s People’s Army.

Later on Tuesday, Colonel Isaac Taylor, a spokesperson for the US Armed Forces in Korea, confirmed that a military member “willfully and without authorization” crossed the demarcation line.

The US military identified the soldier as Private Second Class Travis T King.

King’s motives were not immediately clear, but two US officials told the Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity that the soldier had been due to face disciplinary action prior to the incident. He had been released from a South Korean prison where he had been held on assault charges and was facing additional military disciplinary actions in the US.

The soldier, who is in his early 20s, was escorted to the airport to be returned to Fort Bliss, Texas but somehow managed to leave and instead join a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he ran across the border.

When asked about the incident, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “There’s a lot that we’re still trying to learn.”

“We believe that he is in [North Korean] custody, and so we’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin,” he said.

No further details were immediately available.

Panmunjom is located within the 248-kilometre-long (154-mile-long) demilitarised zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred there, but it has also been a venue for numerous talks.

In 2019, former US President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the village.

Two years earlier, in November of 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues raced towards the border. The soldier was hit five times before he was found beneath a pile of leaves on the southern side of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.

Earlier incidents in Panmunjom included the killing of US army officers by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers in August 1976. The US officers had been sent out to trim a tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint.

Tours to the southern side of the village, known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs, have also become common. They reportedly drew around 100,000 visitors a year prior to the coronavirus pandemic. No civilians live in the village.

The US bars its citizens from entering North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long term detention of US nationals”.

The ban was implemented after US college student Otto Warmbier was detained by North Korean authorities while on a tour of the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from prison and returned to the US in a coma.

Cases of US citizens or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties since the end of the Korean War.

The soldier who crossed on Monday is the first US citizen known to be detained in the North in nearly five years.

In May 2018, North Korea released three US detainees: Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song.

Later in 2018, North Korea said it expelled US citizen Bruce Byron Lowrance.

Tuesday’s border crossing occurred as tensions remain high over North Korea’s continued missile tests since the start of last year. Earlier in the day, the US sent a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades as deterrence against North Korea.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies