A US Army soldier facing disciplinary actions skipped a flight out of the country and then “willfully” crossed into North Korea where he is reportedly being detained, US and South Korean officials said Tuesday.
The Pentagon identified the soldier as private Travis T. King, a cavalry scout assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
US military officials told several media outlets including the Associated Press that King was facing disciplinary actions before he crossed the border. King, the AP reported, was released from a South Korean jail where he was being held on assault charges and was taken by Army officials to a nearby airport to fly to Fort Bliss, where he would face further disciplinary action. Instead, officials said, King joined a tour group at the airport, that then went to the border village of Panmunjom. There, King sprinted across the border.
Panmunjom is home to the Joint Security Area (JSA), an 800-meter wide complex of buildings along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) overseen by the United Nations Command which is used for diplomatic purposes. The DMZ separates South Korea from North Korea, which is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
United Nations Command confirmed that the border crossing happened during an orientation tour.
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“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our [Korean People’s Army] counterparts to resolve this incident,” the command announced on Tuesday.
“A U.S. service member on a JSA orientation tour willfully and without authorization crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” Col. Isaac Taylor, a USFK spokesman, told Task & Purpose. We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident.”
One U.S. official told The Washington Post that the service member was a U.S. Army soldier and had been scheduled on a recent flight to the U.S., but did not board the plane.
There are currently more than 28,500 U.S. service members stationed in South Korea. The United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area is staffed by the U.S. Army and South Korean Army, although it has not been confirmed what specific unit the detained individual was assigned to.
The Korean DMZ was established in 1953 as part of an armistice agreement following three years of intense conflict that is still, technically, not officially over. Over the ensuing decades it has become perhaps the most militarized and heavily armed border in the world. The JSA is located at the village where the 1953 armistice agreement was signed, and is notable as the face-to-face meeting point of the two Koreas, where there is little more than a small raised line marking the official border.
During the Korean War, 21 U.S. service members who became prisoners of war elected to remain in North Korea. Following the armistice in 1953, six more have reportedly defected, most recently in 1982.
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