According to U.S. officials, an American soldier who was being investigated for misconduct crossed the heavily guarded border into North Korea from South Korea on Tuesday, becoming the first American caught in the North in nearly five years.
Two American sources identified the imprisoned soldier as Private 2nd Class Travis King, who had recently been freed from a South Korean prison where he had been detained on assault charges and was now subject to further military punishment in the US.
Early in his 20s, King was led to the airport to be returned to Fort Bliss, Texas, but instead of boarding the aircraft, he opted to attend a tour of the Korean border settlement of Panmunjom, where he ran across the border.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that a U.S. serviceman was probably still being held by North Korea on Tuesday at a Pentagon press briefing, but he did not mention King by name.
Austin stated that his main worry was for the welfare of the military and added, “We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin.
“We’ll keep you updated as this develops over the coming days and hours.” It was not immediately clear what additional allegations King was facing or where he was from. It was also a mystery how he got away from the airport while being accompanied.
He is thought to be in North Korean custody, according to the American-led U.N. Command, which is coordinating with North Korean authorities to put an end to the incident.
The border crossing was not immediately covered by North Korea’s state media. Although it is uncommon for Americans or South Koreans to defect to North Korea, more than 30,000 North Koreans have done so since the 1950–1953 Korean War to escape political repression and economic hardship.