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American Detained After Crossing Into North Korea Without Authorization 

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American Detained After Crossing Into North Korea Without Authorization 

An American has reportedly crossed the border into the North without authorization, but further details about why or how are not yet available.

American Detained After Crossing Into North Korea Without Authorization 
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An American soldier facing military disciplinary actions fled across the heavily armed border from South Korea into North Korea, U.S. officials said Tuesday, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years.

Two U.S. officials said the soldier detained was Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, who had just been released from a South Korean prison where he’d been held on assault charges and was facing additional military disciplinary actions in the United States.

King, who is in his early 20s, was escorted to the airport to be returned to Fort Bliss, Texas, but instead of getting on the plane he left and joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he ran across the border.

At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not name King, but confirmed that a U.S. service member was likely now in North Korean custody.

“We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin,” Austin said, noting he was foremost concerned about the troop’s wellbeing. “This will develop in the next several days and hours, and we’ll keep you posted.”

Details about King, including his hometown and what additional charges he faced, were not immediately available. It was also unclear how he managed to leave the airport while he was being escorted.

The American-led U.N. Command said King is believed to be in North Korean custody and the command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident. North Korea’s state media didn’t immediately report on the border crossing.

Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties at home since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Panmunjom, located inside the 248-kilometer (154-mile) -long Demilitarized Zone, is jointly overseen by the U.N. Command and North Korea since its creation at the close of the Korean War. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred there, but it has also been a venue for numerous talks and a popular tourist spot.

Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form a military demarcation line, Panmunjom has drawn visitors on both sides, who want to see what the Cold War’s last frontier looks like. No civilians live at Panmunjom.

Tours to the southern side of the village reportedly drew around 100,000 visitors a year before the pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. The tours fully resumed last year.

In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues raced toward freedom. The soldier was hit five times before he was found beneath a pile of leaves on the southern side of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.

The most famous incident at Panmunjom happened in August 1976, when two American army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. The U.S. officers had been sent out to trim a 40-foot (12-meter) tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint. The attack prompted Washington to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers toward the DMZ to intimidate North Korea.

Panmunjom also is where an armistice that ended the Korean War was signed. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war. The United States still stations about 28,000 troops in South Korea.

There have been a small number of U.S. soldiers who fled to North Korea during the Cold War, including Charles Jenkins, who deserted his army post in South Korea in 1965 and fled across the DMZ. He appeared in North Korean propaganda films and married a Japanese nursing student who had been abducted by North Korean agents. He died in Japan in 2017.

In recent years, some Americans have been arrested in North Korea after allegedly entering the country from China. They were later convicted of espionage, subversion, and other anti-state acts, but were often released after the U.S. sent high-profile 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 Sates on a plane with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a short-lived period of warm relations between the longtime adversary nations. Later in 2018, North Korea said it expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance.

The releases came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was engaged in nuclear diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump, but the high-stakes diplomacy collapsed in 2019 amid wrangling over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea.

Their freedoms were a striking contrast to the fate of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died in 2017 days after he was released from North Korea in a coma after 17 months in captivity. Warmbier and other previous American detainees in the North were imprisoned there over a variety of alleged crimes, including subversion, anti-state activities, and spying.

The United States, South Korea, and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody.

Tuesday’s border crossing happened amid high tensions over North Korea’s barrage of missile tests since the start of last year. The United States earlier Tuesday sent a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades as deterrence against North Korea.

This story has been updated to reflect confirmation of King’s identity.