An American soldier facing military disciplinary actions fled across the heavily armed border from South Korea into North Korea, U.S. officials said Tuesday, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years.
Private 2nd Class Travis King had been held on assault charges and was released on July 10 after serving his time. He was being sent home to Fort Bliss, Texas, on Monday, where he could have faced additional military disciplinary actions and discharge from the service.
According to officials, King, 23, was taken to the airport and escorted as far as customs. But instead of getting on the plane, he left the airport and later joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom. He bolted across the border, which is lined with guards and often crowded with tourists, on Tuesday afternoon local time in Korea.
The Army released his name and limited information after King’s family was notified of the incident. But a number of U.S. officials provided additional details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. It wasn’t clear how he got to the border or how he spent the hours between leaving the airport on Monday and crossing the border a day later.
At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that the U.S. service member was likely now in North Korean custody.
“We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin,” Austin said, noting he was foremost concerned about the troop’s wellbeing. “This will develop in the next several days and hours, and we’ll keep you posted.”
According to Army spokesman Bryce Dubee, King is a cavalry scout who joined the service in January 2021. He was in Korea as part of the 1st Armored Division.
The American-led U.N. Command said he is believed to be in North Korean custody and the command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident. North Korea’s state media didn’t immediately report on the border crossing.
King’s awards include the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal and the Overseas Service Ribbon, according to the Army.
Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Panmunjom, located inside the 248-kilometer-long (154-mile) Demilitarized Zone, has been jointly overseen by the U.N. Command and North Korea since its creation at the close of the Korean War. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred there, but it has also been a venue for numerous talks and is a popular tourist spot.
Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form the demarcation line, Panmunjom draws visitors from both sides who want to see the Cold War’s last frontier. No civilians live at Panmunjom. North and South Korean soldiers faced off within meters (yards) of each other, while tourists on both sides snap photographs.