By Eugene Whong
An American soldier in South Korea scheduled for disciplinary action crossed into North Korea on Tuesday, U.S. and U.N. officials said, and is believed to be in custody there.
The incident happened in the Joint Security Area or JSA, at Panmunjom, where soldiers of both Koreas are stationed, sometimes facing each other.
The soldier was on a civilian tour of the JSA and crossed the Military Demarcation Line into North Korea without authorization, according to a Twitter post by the United Nations command.
One person who was part of the tour and who said they saw the incident, told CBS News that after the group visited one of the JSA buildings, “this man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings.”
The witness said that at first there was confusion as to what was happening, but military personnel reacted within seconds.
“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,” CBS News reported the person as saying.
Media reports, including from the Associated Press and CBS News, identified the soldier as Travis King, a private second class, citing U.S. officials.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the incident, but not his name, and said there is still a lot American officials are trying to learn.
“We believe that he is in [North Korean] custody and so we’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin,” he said.
The soldier was in the process of being escorted back to the United States to face disciplinary actions, AP and CBS said, but after going through airport security he was able to exit the airport and join the JSA tour.
The U.S. State Department was prepared to take any appropriate step to help resolve the situation, the department’s spokesperson Matthew Miller said, without naming any specific actions.
“All I will say is that … it’s clear that he willfully on his own volition crossed the border and the matter remains under investigation,” said Miller.
It remains unclear what the soldier’s motivations were. If it is a defection, it would be the seventh by U.S. military personnel to the North since the end of hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War, and the first in more than 40 years.
In separate cases in the 1960s, four American soldiers – Larry Allen Abshier, James Joseph Dresnok, Jerry Wayne Parrish, and Charles Robert Jenkins – crossed the border into North Korea. They were used by North Korea in propaganda efforts, including some of them as actors portraying American villains in film.
Abshier, Dresnok and Parrish would remain in North Korea until their deaths, but Jenkins was allowed to leave for Japan in 2004 to reunite with his wife Hitomi Soga, whom he married in North Korea in 1980 after she was abducted from Japan two years earlier. Soga was one of several abducted Japanese allowed to return to their homeland in 2002.
In 1979 Roy Chung, a South Korean citizen who had joined the U.S. Army, went AWOL while serving in West Germany near the border of East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Two months after his disappearance, North Korea claimed that he defected, but his family at the time said they believed he had been abducted. He is believed to have died around 2004.
In 1982, Joseph White crossed the border into North Korea. He died there three years later.
In addition to these soldiers, several U.S. citizens have been detained by North Korean authorities over the years, including Otto Warmbier, who was arrested as he was leaving the country in 2016. In 2017, he arrived in the United States in a coma and died shortly after.
Pyongyang has a long history of using detained Americans as bargaining chips, Anthony Ruggiero of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Life in North Korea is not easy because the Kim regime prioritizes its prohibited nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” he said. “Americans should know that North Korea is not a tourist destination and respect the travel ban.”
Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security chair at the Hudson Institute, told RFA that Tuesday’s incident could open a new channel for engagement.
“Among other things, the administration will not want to see any other American die in North Korean captivity —even one who went there on his own volition,” he said.
Additional reporting by Cho Jinwoo.