A U.S. soldier facing disciplinary action crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea on Tuesday and was believed to be in North Korean custody, U.S. officials said, creating a fresh crisis for Washington in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.
The United Nations Command that oversees the demilitarized zone area at the border earlier on Tuesday identified the individual as a U.S. national who had crossed into North Korea without authorization while on a tour. It said the person was likely in custody but offered no other details.
South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo daily, citing South Korea’s army, identified the person as Travis King, a U.S. army soldier with the rank of private second class. The newspaper later deleted the name.
Reuters could not immediately confirm the identity of the person, but two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the soldier had been due to face disciplinary action by the U.S. military.
A third U.S. official said the soldier had crossed into North Korea “wilfully and without authorization.”
CBS News said that before the incident the soldier was being escorted back to the United States for disciplinary reasons, but after going through airport security somehow returned and managed to join the border tour.
It said a person who said they witnessed the event and was part of the same tour group told CBS News they had just visited one of the buildings at the site when “this man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings.”
CBS cited the witness as saying that military personnel reacted within seconds to the man’s actions, but initially, there was confusion.
“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” it quoted the witness as saying.
According to CBS, the witness said there were no North Korean soldiers visible where the man ran, and that the group has been told there hadn’t been since the coronavirus pandemic, when North Korea sought to seal its borders.
The crossing comes at a sensitive time amid high tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the arrival of a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine in South Korea for a rare visit in a warning to North Korea over its own military activities.
North Korea has been testing increasingly powerful missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, including a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile launched last week.
The White House, the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon and North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Colonel Isaac Taylor, spokesperson for the U.S. military in South Korea and the U.N. Command, declined to confirm whether the individual was a U.S. Army soldier.
“We’re still doing some research into this, and everything that happened,” he told Reuters.
The incident happened during a tour to the Joint Security Area on the demilitarized zone border that has separated the two Koreas since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The man was with a group of visitors, including civilians, to the Panmunjom truce village when he suddenly bolted over the brick line marking the border, Donga and the Chosun Ilbo daily newspapers reported, citing South Korean army sources.
“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 U.N. Command said on Twitter.
“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” it added, referring to North Korea’s People’s Army.
The U.S. State Department tells U.S. nationals not to enter North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long term detention of U.S. nationals.”
The ban was implemented after U.S. 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 North Korea and returned to the United States in a coma.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)