What We Know About How a U.S. Soldier Ended Up in North Korea

The world was shocked on Tuesday when a United States soldier willfully and illegally crossed the inter-Korean border during a group tour of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, becoming the latest American citizen to be held in custody by North Korea.

The exact motive of the soldier, Pvt. Travis T. King, remains unknown, and U.S. officials said they were working with their North Korean counterparts to have him released. North Korea has yet to issue a statement about the incident. The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and technically remains at war with the isolated communist country.

If Private King defected, he would be the first American armed service person to do so since the early 1980s.

Here’s what to know.

Who is Travis King?

Few details are available about Private King, including when he first arrived in South Korea, where 28,500 American troops are based.

Last October, he ran into trouble with the law in South Korea after an altercation with locals during which he damaged a police car, according to South Korean news media and police officials.

He spent time in a South Korean jail on assault charges, and on Tuesday was supposed to be on a plane to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face disciplinary action in the United States.

He was escorted to Incheon International Airport in Seoul. But instead of getting on the plane, he joined a group tour of the Joint Security Area, which is inside the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and is commonly known as Panmunjom.

It remained unclear how Mr. King managed to leave the airport.

What happened at the border?

Private King was at the border with other tourists and bolted across while they watched, according to witness accounts in local and international news reports.

According to one account, unarmed soldiers guarding the tour were unable to catch him as he ran into North Korea. The last time he was seen, he was being taken into custody by North Korean soldiers.

A soldier guards a door on the North Korean side of a building in Panmunjom. On Tuesday, a U.S. soldier ran across the border to North Korea during a tour of the area.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“To our right, we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from OUR GROUP that has been with us all day runs in between two of the buildings and over to the other side!!” a fellow tourist wrote on Facebook, according to NK News. “It took everybody a second to react and grasp what had actually happened.”

Another tourist, Sarah Leslie, told New Zealand’s 1News that when Private King dashed toward the border, she thought that he was doing it for a TikTok video.

“Suddenly, I noticed a guy running, dressed in black, what looked like full gas towards the North Korean side,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘what an absolute idiot.’”

“He just kept going and didn’t stop,” she added.

Eventually, soldiers realized what was happening and chased after him, but to no avail, according to the witnesses. The tour was cut short, and the rest of the group was quickly shuffled into a building.

“Everyone was kind of flipping their lid, and once we got in the building, it was kind of like ‘oh, my God,’” Ms. Leslie said.

Mr. King’s mother told ABC News that she last heard from her son “a few days ago,” when he told her he would return soon to his base in Fort Bliss.

“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Claudine Gates, of Racine, Wis., told the news outlet.

She added she just wanted “him to come home.”

What is Panmunjom?

Panmunjom is an 800-by-400-yard enclave inside the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which divides the two Koreas. The DMZ was created as a buffer between the rival armies, and Panmunjom has been their sole contact point since the armistice was signed to suspend the Korean War 70 years ago next week.

Originally, there was no dividing line inside Panmunjom, and officials and soldiers from both sides could move between borders freely. But when North Korean soldiers murdered two U.S. soldiers with an ax at Panmunjom in 1976, a demarcation line — a thin slab of concrete — was installed to separate the two sides.

President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meeting on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone in 2019.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Like the rest of the 155-mile-long DMZ, Panmunjom has become a symbol of both the continuing military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula as well as efforts at reconciliation and unification.

President Donald J. Trump famously walked across the demarcation line to shake hands with Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, in 2019, one of the most iconic scenes from his short-lived diplomatic dalliance with the dictator.

What other Americans have been held by North Korea?

No American detained by North Korea has ever entered the country through the Joint Security Area, as Private King did on Tuesday.

North Korea is commonly described as the world’s “most isolated” nation and a “totalitarian” police state that regularly threatens nuclear war with the United States. It has been accused of kidnapping foreigners and running a network of prison camps.

Still, the North has attracted many Americans, a score of whom have ended up in detention there in recent decades.

Over the postwar years, several American soldiers went AWOL from their bases in South Korea and walked across the heavily armed DMZ. The most well-known example was that of Charles Robert Jenkins, an Army sergeant who defected to North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

Mr. Jenkins was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004. When he was subsequently tried for desertion in a military court, he testified that after his defection, he was taken to a hospital where, without anesthesia, a doctor sliced off skin, tattooed with the words “U.S. Army,” from his forearm.

Former Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, arriving at an American base in Japan in 2014, defected to North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat in Vietnam.Credit…Toshiyuki Aizawa/Reuters

In the North, he said he taught English to North Korean military cadets and appeared in anti-American propaganda leaflets and films. Mr. Jenkins died in Japan in 2017.

Some American tourists who have traveled to North Korea to get a glimpse of one of the world’s last remaining socialist holdouts have also been detained there. In 2013, Merrill Edward Newman, an American retiree, was released after being held for 42 days on charges of committing hostile acts.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after he was convicted on charges of trying to steal a propaganda poster in a Pyongyang hotel. In 2017, he was flown home comatose after 17 months in captivity and died soon afterward.

Some Christian evangelists have also ended up detained in North Korea. Robert Park, a Korean American missionary from Los Angeles, walked into North Korea from China on Christmas Day in 2009, holding a Bible in one hand and shouting, “Jesus loves North Korea.” Mr. Park was held for 43 days before he was released and expelled from the country.

Is it easy to get a tour of Panmunjom?

Because of its history and symbolism, Panmunjom has become a popular tourist destination for foreign visitors to South Korea.

But joining a tour requires approval from the American-led United Nations Command, which oversees the southern part of the zone while the​ North Korean People’s Army oversees the north. Approval can take days and requires visitors to provide their passport information.

From Panmunjom, tourists can gaze at the gigantic flagpole the North erected in a propaganda war with the South over which side could raise the highest flag.

A North Korean flagpole can be seen from Panmunjom. The North erected it in an effort to raise a higher flag than the South.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The highlight of the tour are the three blue structures built for meetings between envoys and other officials at the center of Panmunjom.

Tourists are allowed to enter the central structure, known as T2, where they can step into North Korean territory across the demarcation line. It’s the only spot in the DMZ where a tourist can legally step on North Korean soil.

Private King made his dash into North Korea between these buildings.

What could happen next?

Mr. Kim’s fate will largely determine on whether North Korea, which has yet to comment on his case, will treat him as a defector or as an illegal trespasser.

A defector would be allowed to live in the North. But those accused of entering the country illegally have often been used as bargaining tools.

For the past few years, North Korea has not responded to repeated calls for dialogue from Washington. The United States has no embassy in Pyongyang. It relies on the Swedish Embassy to help protect the interests of Americans held there.

The three blue structures at Panmunjom, seen from North Korea, in 2018.Credit…Dita Alangkara/Associated Press

“It’s too early to tell whether North Korea will treat him as a defector like Jenkins or as someone it can use to try to create a diplomatic breakthrough with the United States by releasing him, should it send a high-level special envoy,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

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