The world was shocked on Tuesday when a US soldier deliberately and illegally crossed the inter-Korean border during a group tour of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, becoming the latest American citizen to be detained by North Korea.
The exact motive of the soldier, Pvt. Travis T. King, still unidentified, and US officials said they were working with their counterparts in North Korea to secure his release. North Korea has not yet issued a statement about the incident. The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and is technically still at war with the remote communist country.
If Private King were to defect, he would be the first member of the American armed service to do so since the early 1980s.
Here’s what you know.
Who is Travis King?
Few details are available about Private King, including when he first arrived in South Korea, where 28,500 American troops are based.
Last October, he got into trouble with the law in South Korea after an altercation with locals in which he damaged a police car, according to South Korean news media and police officials.
He spent time in a South Korean prison on assault charges, and was supposed to be on a plane earlier this month to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face disciplinary action in the United States.
He was taken to Incheon International Airport in Seoul. But instead of getting on the plane, he went on a group tour of the Joint Security Area, which is within the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and is commonly known as Panmunjom.
It was not yet clear how Mr King managed to leave the airport.
What happened at the border?
The Private King was at the border with other tourists and crossed as they watched, according to witness accounts in local and international news reports.
According to one account, unarmed soldiers guarding the tour were unable to apprehend him as he walked into North Korea. The last time he was seen, he was being detained by North Korean soldiers.
“To our right, we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from our Group who was with us all day runs between two of the buildings and over to the other side!” another tourist wrote on Facebook, according to NK News. “It took everyone a second to react and understand what really happened.”
Another tourist, Sarah Leslie, said New Zealand’s 1News when the Private King broke towards the border, she thought he was doing it for a TikTok video.
“Suddenly, I noticed a man dressed in black running, which looked like full throttle towards the North Korean side,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘what a complete idiot.'”
“It just kept going and didn’t stop,” she said.
Eventually, the soldiers realized what was happening and went in search of him, but to no avail, according to the witnesses. The trip was cut short, and the rest of the group was quickly shuffled into a building.
“Everybody was kind of blowing their covers, and when we got into the building, it was kind of like ‘Oh, my God,'” Ms. Leslie said.
Mr. King’s mother said ABC News that she heard from her son “a few days ago,” when he told her he would soon return to his base at Fort Bliss.
“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Claudine Gates, of Racine, Wis., told the news outlet.
She said she just wanted him to “come home.”
What is Panmunjom?
Panmunjom is an 800-by-400-yard enclave inside the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which the two Koreas share. The DMZ was created as a buffer between the opposing armies, and Panmunjom has been their only point of contact since the armistice was signed to suspend the Korean War 70 years ago next week.
Initially, there was no dividing line inside Panmunjom, and officers and soldiers from both sides could move between borders freely. But when North Korean soldiers murdered two US soldiers with an ax at Panmunjom in 1976, a demarcation line – a thin slab of concrete – was installed to separate the two sides.
Like the rest of the 155-mile-long DMZ, Panmunjom is a symbol of the ongoing military conflict on the Korean Peninsula as well as efforts at reconciliation and unification.
President Donald J. Trump famously walked across the border to shake hands with Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, in 2019, one of the most iconic scenes from his short-lived diplomatic relationship with the dictator.
What other Americans have occupied North Korea?
No American detained by North Korea has ever entered the country through the Joint Security Area, as Private King did on Tuesday.
North Korea is commonly described as the world’s “most isolated” nation and a “totalitarian” police state that regularly threatens nuclear war with the United States. He is accused of kidnapping foreigners and running a network of prison camps.
However, the North has attracted many Americans, scores of whom have been detained there in recent years.
Over the years after the war, some American soldiers went AWOL from their bases in South Korea and walked across the DMZ heavily armed. The most famous example was Charles Robert Jenkins, an Army sergeant who defected to North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
Mr. Jenkins was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004. When he was later tried for desertion in a military court, he testified that after his recovery he was taken to a hospital, where a doctor, without anesthesia, off skin, tattoo with. the words “US Army,” from his hand.
In the North, he said he taught English to North Korean military cadets and appeared in anti-American propaganda leaflets and films. Mr Jenkins died in Japan in 2017.
Several American tourists who traveled to North Korea to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s last socialist holdings are also detained there. In 2013, Merrill Edward Newman, an American pensioner, was released after being detained for 42 days on charges of committing hostile acts.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being convicted on charges of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang. In 2017, he was flown home comatose after 17 months in captivity and died soon after.
A number of Christian evangelists are also detained in North Korea. Robert Park, a Korean American missionary from Los Angeles, walked into North Korea from China on Christmas Day 2009, holding a Bible in one hand and shouting, “Jesus loves North Korea.” Mr Park was held for 43 days before being released and deported.
Is it easy to get a tour of Panmunjom?
Because of its history and symbolism, Panmunjom has become a popular tourist destination for foreign visitors to South Korea.
But a trip must be approved by the American-led United Nations Command, which oversees the southern part of the zone and the North Korean People’s Army oversees the north. Approval may take days and visitors are required to provide their passport information.
From Panmunjom, tourists can view the giant flagpole erected by the North in a propaganda war with the South over which side could raise the highest flag.
The highlight of the trip are the three blue structures built for meetings between delegates and other officials in the center of Panmunjom.
Tourists are allowed to enter the central structure, known as T2, where they can enter North Korean territory across the border border. It is the only spot in the DMZ where a tourist can legally step onto North Korean soil.
The Private King made his dash into North Korea between these buildings.
What would happen next?
Mr. Kim’s fate will largely determine whether North Korea, which has not yet commented on his situation, will treat him as a defaulter or an illegal trespasser.
A defector would be allowed to live in the North. But those accused of entering the country illegally have often been used as bargaining chips.
In recent years, North Korea has not responded to repeated calls for dialogue from Washington. The United States has no embassy in Pyongyang. He relies on the Swedish Embassy to help protect the interests of the Americans detained there.
“It’s too early to say whether North Korea will treat him as a defaulter like Jenkins or as someone she can use to try to create diplomatic progress with the United States by releasing him, if she sends high-level special envoy,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.