A US soldier who served about two months in a South Korean prison on assault charges is believed to have been in North Korean custody on Wednesday after crossing the heavily fortified border without authorization, officials said.
The soldier – identified by the US military as Travis King, a private second class in the army since 2021 – crossed the border “willingly and without authorization,” said US Forces Korea spokesman Colonel Isaac Taylor.
The United Nations Command said he was on an orientation trip for the Joint Security Area (JSA), adding that it believed he was in North Korean custody and was working with Pyongyang’s military to “resolve this incident”.
“King was released on July 10 after serving about two months in a South Korean prison for assault charges,” a Seoul official told AFP.
South Korean police told AFP that King was investigated for an attack in September 2022, but was not in custody at the time.
CBS News reported, citing US officials, that the low-ranking soldier was being escorted home to the US for disciplinary reasons, but managed to leave the airport and join the tour group.
The head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, told journalists that Washington was “closely monitoring and investigating the situation”.
North and South Korea technically remain at war because the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, with a Demilitarized Zone running along the border.
Soldiers from both sides confront the JSA north of Seoul, which is overseen by the United Nations Command. It is also a popular tourist site, with hundreds of visitors making the trip to the South Korean side every day.
Former US president Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Panmunjom Truce Village in 2019 and even stood on North Korean soil after crossing the border line there.
An eyewitness who said they were on the same JSA tour told CBS News that the group visited one of the buildings on the site when “this guy was saying ‘ha ha ha’ and running between certain buildings “.
“I thought it was bad news at first but, when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke and then everyone reacted and things got crazy,” they said.
Hours later, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, according to the South Korean military – an apparent response to the arrival of an American nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea on Tuesday, the first such visit since 1981 in respect.
The ballistic missile launches were probably unrelated to the American soldier crossing the border, “but such an incident does not help matters,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime would likely treat a border crossing as a military, intelligence and public health threat although it is more likely that such a person is mentally disturbed and acting impulsively due to personal issues.”
North Korea sealed its borders at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and they have yet to reopen. The JSA has also greatly reduced its security presence on the border side.
When AFP toured the JSA earlier this year, no North Korean guards were to be seen in the area. However, under armistice protocols, South Korean or US personnel could not cross the border to retrieve a US national.
The incident comes as relations between the two Koreas are at one of their lowest points, with diplomacy stalled and Kim calling for increased weapons development, including tactical nuclear warheads.
Seoul and Washington have stepped up defense cooperation in response, staging joint military exercises with advanced stealth jets and US strategic assets.
The JSA in Panmunjom is generally peaceful despite ongoing hostility between the two sides.
In 1976, two American soldiers in the JSA were killed by the North Koreans with axes in a dispute over a tree.
The last time the JSA had a bug was in 2017, when a North Korean soldier drove a military jeep and then ran on foot across the demarcation line at Panmunjom.
He was shot several times by his fellow North Korean soldiers but survived.
In general, clashes between the two Koreas are rare but much more common in the opposite direction, when North Koreans seek to escape grinding poverty and oppression by fleeing, usually across the northern land border into China.