A US soldier facing disciplinary action crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea on Tuesday, where he is being held, US officials said.
Private 2nd Class Travis King had just been released from a South Korean prison where he had been held for assault and was facing further military disciplinary action in the United States.
Pte King, who is in his early 20s, was escorted to the airport to be flown back to Fort Bliss, Texas, but instead of boarding the plane he left and took part in a village tour Korean border crossing from Panmunjom, where he crossed the border.
As he crossed the demilitarized zone (DMZ), he let out a loud “ha ha ha”, a witness said.
He had joined a group visiting the Joint Security Area – the DMZ border village separating the two Koreas, which is heavily guarded by soldiers from both sides.
The UN command said in a statement: “A US national on a Joint Security Area (JSA) orientation tour has crossed the military demarcation line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) without permission.”
Authorities said “we are working with our KPA (North Korean military) counterparts to resolve this incident.”
A US official told CBS News the service member was able to return and join the border tour after clearing airport security.
According to local press, a foreign national crossed the border at 3:27 p.m. local time [0637 GMT].
Colonel Isaac Taylor of U.S. Forces Korea Public Affairs said The Independent: “A U.S. service member on a JSA orientation tour has voluntarily and without permission crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We believe he is currently being held in the DPRK and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident.
An individual who said he witnessed what happened and was on the tour with the US soldier told CBS News that they had visited one of the buildings in the area when “this man is making a loud “ha ha ha” and just runs between some buildings”.
“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 everyone reacted and things got crazy,” wrote they stated at the point of sale.
The witness told the network that no North Korean soldiers could be seen where the man was running, adding that they had been told there had been no presence since the pandemic while South Korea North was trying to completely close its borders.
The witness said that after the man crossed the border, the tour group was taken to Freedom House to make statements and then taken to their bus.
“I’m telling you this because it really hit me pretty hard,” the witness told CBS News. “It was on the way back on the bus, and we got to one of the checkpoints… Someone said there were 43 of us going in and 42 coming back.”
An anonymous official said The Washington Post that: “It was a deliberate decision on the part of the service member to cross.”
An unnamed Pentagon official told NPR the soldier was dressed in civilian clothes when the incident occurred and was facing disciplinary action in the United States.
A woman who said she was part of the tour group said they were at the last stop when she heard the loud “ha ha ha” and then saw the man, who had spent the day with the group, run “between two of the buildings and on the other side”.
“It took everyone a second to react and realize what really happened,” she wrote on Facebook in a since-deleted post, according to NPR. “Then we were ordered to enter and walk through Freedom House and back to our military bus.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Tuesday that “first and foremost I am concerned for the welfare of our troops.”
The DMZ, one of the most fortified places in the world, is filled with landmines, surrounded by electric fences and barbed wire and surveillance cameras.
Although there are very few cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to the North, more than 30,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border to the South since the 1950s.
Washington has banned U.S. nationals from entering North Korea “due to the serious and continuing risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.”
“The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in North Korea because it has no diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea,” the U.S. travel advisory for North Korea.
The ban was implemented after American student Otto Warmbier was detained by the North while touring the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from prison and returned to the United States in a coma.
Panmunjom, located inside the 248 km (154 mile) long DMZ, was established at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The area has been the site of much discussion and is a popular tourist spot.
In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues ran south. The soldier was hit five times and later rescued from under a pile of leaves on the south side of Panmunjom. He is now in South Korea.
Former US President Donald Trump met his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un in the DMZ in June 2019.
The arrest comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and the North as Pyongyang races to achieve its nuclear aspirations.
Washington deployed a nuclear submarine on its ally South Korea for the first time in 40 years as officials from the two countries met in Seoul to discuss building their countries’ deterrent capabilities against the North .
Ohio-class USS Kentucky The submarine arrived at the port of Busan on Tuesday afternoon, South Korea’s defense ministry said. This is the first visit by a US nuclear submarine to the South since the 1980s, he added.
Periodic visits by nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching US ballistic missiles to the South was one of the agreements reached by the two countries in April. They also agreed to establish a bilateral nuclear advisory group and expand military exercises.