SEOUL: An American soldier facing disciplinary action fled across the inter-Korean border into North Korea on Tuesday (Jul 18) and was believed to be in North Korean custody, US officials said, creating a fresh crisis for Washington in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed concern for the soldier, who the US military in Korea said joined an orientation tour of Joint Security Area between the Koreas and “wilfully and without authorisation crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)”.
The US Army identified the soldier as Private Travis T King, who joined in 2021.
“There’s a lot that we’re still trying to learn,” Austin told a news briefing. “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.”
The crossing comes at a time of high tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the arrival of a US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine in South Korea for a rare visit in a warning to North Korea over its own military activities.
North Korea has been testing increasingly powerful missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, including a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile launched last week. It fired another ballistic missile into the sea near Japan on Tuesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing South Korea’s military.
Colonel Isaac Taylor, spokesperson for US Forces Korea, said the military was “working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident”, referring to North Korea’s People’s Army.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said US officials at the Pentagon, the State Department and the United Nations were all working to “to ascertain more information and resolve this situation”.
“We’re in the early stages,” she said, adding that the primary concern was determining the well being of the soldier.
North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A DASH ACROSS THE BORDER
The soldier was on a civilian tour with a group of visitors to the Panmunjom truce village when he crossed over the line marking the border, US official say. The Joint Security Area in the demilitarised zone has separated the Koreas since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
But US officials were stumped about why the soldier fled to North Korea and outlined a puzzling series of events on Tuesday.
King had finished serving time in detention in South Korea for an unspecified infraction and was transported by the US military to the airport to return to his home unit in the United States, two officials said.
He had already passed alone through security to his gate and then, for whatever reason, decided to flee, one official said. Civilian tours of the demilitarised zone are advertised at the airport and King appeared to have decided to join one, the official added.