SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A U.S. soldier crossed the heavily armed border between South Korea and North Korea, U.S. officials said Tuesday. He went “voluntarily and without permission”, the US military said, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years at a time of heightened tensions over its nuclear program.
There were no immediate details on why or how the soldier crossed the border or if he was on duty. The five US officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of a public announcement.
The US UN command overseeing the area tweeted earlier Tuesday that the detained soldier was visiting the Korean border village of Panmunjom. The soldier deliberately separated himself and fled from the rest of the group, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment. The official added that it is “not normal” for active duty members to go on such tours.
The U.S. military in South Korea also said in a statement that he “voluntarily and without permission” crossed the Military Demarcation Line into North Korea.
He said he would be detained in North Korea and that the United Nations Command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident. North Korean state media did not immediately report on the border crossing.
Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, although more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic hardship since the end of the Korean War of 1950-1953.
Panmunjom, located inside the 248 kilometer (154 mile) long demilitarized zone, has been jointly overseen by the UN command and North Korea since its establishment at the end of the Korean War. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred here, but it has also been the site of much discussion and is a popular tourist spot.
Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form the boundary line, Panmunjom attracts visitors from both sides who want to see the final frontier of the Cold War. No civilians live in Panmunjom. In the past, North and South Korean soldiers clashed within a few meters (yards) of each other.
Tours of the south side of the village are believed to have attracted around 100,000 visitors a year before the coronavirus pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. Tours resumed completely last year. During a short period of inter-Korean engagement in 2018, Panmunjom was one of the border sites that underwent clearance operations by North and South Korean army engineers as the Koreans engaged in transforming the village into a “zone of peace” where tourists from both sides could move around with more freedom.
In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues ran south. This soldier was hit five times before being found under a pile of leaves on the south side of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.
The most famous Panmunjom incident occurred in August 1976, when two US Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers wielding axes. US officers had been sent to prune a 40-foot-tall (12-meter-tall) tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint. The attack prompted Washington to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the DMZ to intimidate North Korea.
Panmunjom is also where the armistice that ended the Korean War was signed. This armistice has not yet been replaced by a peace treaty, technically leaving the Korean peninsula in a state of war. The United States still stationed about 28,000 troops in South Korea.
There were a small number of American soldiers who went to North Korea during the Cold War, including Charles Jenkins, who deserted his military post in South Korea in 1965 and fled through the DMZ. He appeared in North Korean propaganda films and married a Japanese nursing student who had been abducted in Japan by North Korean agents. He died in Japan in 2017.
But in recent years, some American civilians have been arrested in North Korea after entering the country from China. They were later found guilty of espionage, subversion and other anti-state acts, but were often released after the United States sent high-level missions to secure their freedom.
In May 2018, North Korea released three American detainees – Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song – who returned to the United States on a plane with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the during a short period of warm relations between the long-time adversaries. Later in 2018, North Korea said it had expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance. Since his ouster, there have been no reports of other Americans being detained in North Korea prior to Tuesday’s incident.
The 2018 releases came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was engaged in nuclear diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump. High-stakes diplomacy fell apart in 2019 amid wrangling over US sanctions against North Korea.
Their freedoms contrasted starkly with the fate of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died in 2017 days after being released by North Korea in a coma after 17 months in captivity. Warmbier and other former American detainees in North Korea have been imprisoned for various alleged crimes, including subversion, anti-state activity and espionage.
The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to extract diplomatic concessions. Some foreigners said after their release that their convictions were forced while they were detained in North Korea.
Tuesday’s border crossing came amid tensions over North Korea’s barrage of missile tests since early last year. A US nuclear submarine visited South Korea for the first time in four decades on Tuesday in a bid to deter North Korea.
Editor’s Note: This is a developing story. It was last updated July 18, 2023 at 11:55 a.m. EST.