N Korea silent after US soldier crosses border from S Korea

US Private 2nd Class Travis King is reported to have willingly entered North Korea from the border village of Panmunjom.

People visit the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
People visit the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, in July 27, 2022 [File: Jon Chol Jin/AP]

North Korea has remained silent about a United States soldier’s highly unusual entry into its territory when he crossed the heavily-fortified border between South and North Korea.

There has been no word from North Korea regarding the fate of US Private 2nd Class Travis King, who willingly bolted into North Korea during a tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday.

North Korea’s state media made no mention of the incident on Wednesday and the country’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Reuters news agency.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed later on Tuesday that an active US service member had wilfully crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea without authorisation.

“We are very early in this event, and so there’s a lot that we are still trying to learn but what we do know is that one of our service members who was on a tour wilfully and without authorisation crossed the military demarcation line,” Austin told a press briefing.

“We are closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin and engaging to address this incident,” he said.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles towards its eastern sea on Wednesday morning but the latest sabre rattling was not considered to be related to the US soldier crossing the borders.

Analysts said the missile launch was more likely related to the arrival of a US nuclear-armed submarine in the country’s port city of Busan on Tuesday – the first such visit by a submarine equipped with nuclear weapons since the early 1980s.

“It’s likely that North Korea will use the soldier for propaganda purposes in the short term and then as a bargaining chip in the mid-to-long term,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea.

King, 23, was a cavalry scout with the 1st Armoured Division who had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault, according to reports.

He was released on July 10 and was being sent home on Monday to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge from the service. He was escorted as far as customs but left an airport in South Korea before having to board his plane to the US. It was not clear how he spent the hours until joining the Panmunjom tour and running across the border to North Korea on Tuesday afternoon.

The US Army released his name and limited information after King’s family was notified. But a number of US officials provided additional details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Cases of US 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 1950-53 Korean War.

Panmunjom, located inside the 248km-long (154-mile) Demilitarized Zone, has been jointly overseen by the UN Command and North Korea since its creation at the close of the Korean War.

Bloodshed has occasionally occurred there, but it has also been a venue for diplomacy and tourism.

Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form the demarcation line, Panmunjom draws visitors from both sides who want to see the Cold War’s last frontier. No civilians live at Panmunjom. North and South Korean soldiers face off while tourists on both sides snap photographs.

Tours to the southern side of the village reportedly drew about 100,000 visitors a year before the coronavirus pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The tours resumed fully last year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies