North Korea reportedly detained an American soldier across the heavily fortified border from South Korea without an entry permit.
The soldier was on an organized tour of the UN-administered area, which lies between the two countries.
The incident comes at a time of tense relations with North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries. American citizens are usually advised not to go there.
A senior US military commander said there had been no contact with the soldier.
Admiral John Aquilino, commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, added that he “does not track” communications with North Korea.
He explained that the soldier acted of his own free will by “escaping” but without permission, and that the incident is under investigation by US forces in South Korea.
Hours after the soldier’s arrest, he launched two ballistic missiles suspected of being launched by North Korea into the sea.
The launch of the two missiles, which the South Korean military confirmed, comes as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula. There was no indication that the firing was related to the soldier’s detention.
It is not clear whether the soldier has fled to North Korea or if he hopes to return. There was no comment from Pyongyang on the incident.
The Pentagon said the soldier was second class, Travis King. A Pentagon spokesman said in a statement that he has been serving in the military since January 2021.
The statement added that he works as a scout in the cavalry – and specializes in reconnaissance – and he was originally appointed as a soldier in the army’s first armored division, and was sent alternately with the US army to South Korea.
The Associated Press reported that the soldier was apparently facing disciplinary action after being detained in South Korea on assault charges.
According to CBS News, the BBC’s US partner, King passed through airport security in Seoul but somehow managed to leave the terminal and take a tour of the border, crossing into North Korea.
The US military said he did so “intentionally and without permission”.
An eyewitness who was on the same tour told CBS that they visited a building at the border post – local media reported it was the truce village called Panmunjom – and he was heard laughing loudly and running between the buildings.
He added, “I thought it was a heavy joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and the reactions were different from everyone and things seemed complicated.”
The United Nations Military Cluster Command, which administers the Demilitarized Zone and the Joint Security Zone, said earlier that its team had made contact with the North Korean military to try to negotiate his release.
“We believe he is currently being held in North Korea and we are working with our counterparts in the Korean People’s Army (North Korean army) to find a solution to what happened,” she added.
It is not clear where or in what circumstances the soldier is being held.
Greg Scarlattoyo, executive director of the Washington DC-based Commission on North Korea, told the BBC it was likely North Korean authorities would try to “extract information from him” about his military service and “try to force him to become their propaganda tool”.
The Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, is one of the most fortified areas in the world.
It is riddled with landmines, surrounded by electric fences, barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Armed guards are supposed to be on alert around the clock.
The demilitarized zone separated the two countries in the 1950s during the Korean War, in which the United States supported South Korea. The war ended in a truce, meaning that the two sides are still technically at war.
Dozens of people try to flee North Korea every year, fleeing poverty and starvation, but escaping through the Demilitarized Zone is extremely dangerous and rare. The country closed its borders in 2020 with the spread of the Corona pandemic and has not reopened them to this day.
South Korea said the last time a North Korean soldier defected was in 2017, when the soldier drove a vehicle and then ran on foot across the Military Demarcation Line. Despite being shot – 40 rounds – he survived.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,000 people fled North Korea to China every year, according to figures released by the South Korean government.
The soldier’s detention is a major concern in US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy. King is believed to be the only American citizen currently detained in North Korea. Six South Koreans are still being held there.
Relations between the United States and North Korea deteriorated in 2017 after an American student, who was arrested a year ago for stealing a propaganda banner, was returned to the United States in a coma and later died. His family blamed the North Korean authorities for his death.
Three US citizens were also released later during the presidency of Donald Trump in 2018. But in the end, a series of talks between Kim Jong Un and the former US president did little to improve the relationship.
Since then, North Korea has tested dozens of increasingly powerful missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, which have been met with a series of sanctions by the United States and its allies.
The arrest of the US citizen comes on the same day that a US nuclear-capable submarine docked in South Korea for the first time since 1981.
The United States provided South Korea with the submarine specifically to help it deal with the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Before its publication, there were threats of retaliation from the authorities in Pyongyang, who had warned the United States that sending nuclear weapons to the peninsula could lead to a nuclear crisis.