North Korea detained a U.S. soldier who intentionally crossed the border from South Korea in an apparent effort to escape being sent home after being charged with assault, according to an American official.
The Army identified the soldier as Private Second Class Travis King, 23, a cavalry scout in the Army since January 2021 who had received a number of awards. But a U.S. official familiar with the case, who asked not to be identified, said there was more to the story.
King, who is from Wisconsin, had been released from South Korean detention where he had been held on charges of assaulting two Koreans and was facing formal separation from the military for a foreign conviction, the official said. He was escorted through security and customs at an airport and was then left alone for a flight to Fort Bliss, Texas, to receive the separation notice, according to the official.
Instead, King left the airport and joined a private company’s tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom before bolting across the border, the official said. King’s disciplinary record was reported earlier by the Associated Press.
“A service member on an orientation tour willfully and without authorization crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Colonel Isaac Taylor, an Army spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. “We believe he is currently in DPRK custody.” He said the U..S military was working with its North Korean counterparts “to resolve this incident.”
It was unclear how King made his way from the airport to the tour, which usually requires reservations made in advance. A person who was on the Panmunjom tour told CBS News that a man in the group gave out a loud laugh and then ran between some buildings that straddle the border.
Apart from the assault, the suspected border-crosser also kicked and broke the door of a police car in Seoul last October, shouting profanities directed at the police and U.S. army when taken into custody, court records showed. He was fined 5 million won ($4,000) by a district court in the city over the incident, according to the records.
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC News she just wants her son to come home and was shocked to hear he had entered North Korea.
“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” ABC quoted her as saying. As of noon on Wednesday, North Korea had not commented on the incident.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Tuesday that he was “closely monitoring” the situation but didn’t elaborate on the incident.
Although South Korean and American soldiers keep a close eye on those who visit the area, the border between the Koreas in the Joint Security Area in the Panmunjom so-called truce village is marked by a concrete slab only a few inches off the ground and is easy to cross.
The North Korean military presence has dropped significantly in the JSA since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Since there are no formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, Sweden has acted as the protecting power for the U.S. in North Korea. The Swedish Foreign Ministry referred questions about the incident to U.S. authorities.
Unauthorized crossings into North Korea by westerners are rare and usually occur at the border with China, which is less heavily patrolled than the border between the two Koreas. The peninsula is divided by a 2.5-mile wide Demilitarized Zone protected by razor wire fencing, landmines and hundreds of thousands of military personnel positioned on either side.
In 2017, the death of a young American, Otto Warmbier, after more than a year of captivity in North Korea, infuriated the U.S. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was arrested for pulling down a sign in Pyongyang in January 2016 while on a tour, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 2019, Alek Sigley, an Australian who had been living in Pyongyang, was released from detention in North Korea. Sigley — a postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University — ran tours for foreign students and posted about the country on social media until his arrest.
Many of the Americans detained in North Korea get sentenced to years of hard labor but are typically released several months later after the intervention by the U.S. and its partners.
—With assistance from Ryan Teague Beckwith, Roxana Tiron, Sangmi Cha, Shinhye Kang and Brian Fowler.