The United Nations Command announced on Tuesday that communist North Korea detained an American citizen after he reportedly crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the border between North and South Korea. A senior U.S. official told Fox News on Tuesday morning that the individual is an American soldier.
“A U.S. National on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” the U.N. Command said.
The KPA is the Korean People’s Army, the North Korean military.
The JSA is the Joint Security Area, a facility straddling the MDL in the village of Panmunjeom where North and South Korean border guards are stationed directly across from each other. The United Nations Command helps to oversee the JSA.
It is possible for civilians to tour the South Korean side of the JSA, but tours must be arranged in advance and require extensive security preparations. These tours boasted about 100,000 customers each year before they were shut down by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, resuming in 2022. Crossing even the slightest distance into North Korean territory without proper authorization is very strongly discouraged.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory banning American citizens from entering North Korea after the regime arrested tourist Otto Warmbier in 2015. Warmbier was released in extremely poor health in 2017 and died soon afterward at the age of 22. The do-not-travel advisory from the State Department remains in effect today.
President Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to cross the MDL into North Korea in June 2019. Trump’s brief sojourn into North Korea, and his subsequent meeting with dictator Kim Jong-un, took place at the JSA.
South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo Daily cited South Korean military sources to identify the person taken into custody by North Korea as a U.S. Army private named “Travis King.” The South Korean paper deleted the name shortly after publishing its report.
Donga-a Ilbo Daily and several other South Korean news organizations reported the man was visiting the JSA with a civilian tour group when he “suddenly bolted over the brick line marking the border.”
There was no official confirmation of the man’s identity, or explanation for his activities, from the U.S. or South Korean governments as of late Tuesday morning, but several U.S. officials anonymously confirmed to the Associated Press that the individual who crossed the border was an American soldier.
There have been several clashes between North and South Korean border forces at the JSA over the past few years, including a North Korean soldier who was shot and wounded by his comrades while defecting to the South in 2017.
An American nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine, the Ohio-class USS Kentucky, made a port call in the South Korean city of Busan on Tuesday. The Pentagon said the sub visit “reflects the United States’ ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea for our extended deterrence guarantee.”
North Korea recently raised tensions on the peninsula by testing long-range missiles, including a Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched last week, and threatening to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes.
Update: U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) released a statement late Tuesday morning that confirmed the man who crossed the border into North Korea was an American soldier.
“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). We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” said Col. Isaac Taylor, USFK Public Affairs.
CBS News quoted unnamed U.S. officials who said the identity of the man given earlier by South Korean media was correct: Private 2nd Class Travis King.
These sources said King “had been released from military detention in South Korea and was being escorted out of the country for disciplinary reasons.”
“After going through airport security to leave, he somehow returned and managed to join a border tour group before crossing into North Korea,” the officials said.
“This man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings,” an eyewitness from the JSA tour group told CBS.
“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” he said.
According to the eyewitness, there were no North Korean soldiers present on their side of the JSA, ostensibly because the border was completely shut down by North Korea during the coronavirus pandemic. The witness said the tour group was shaken when told they would be returning with one less person.