A US soldier who crossed into North Korea while on a tour group after escaping military detention was laughing as he fled over the inter-Korean border, according to media reports.
US and Korean officials identified the soldier as Private 2nd Class Travis King, according to CBS News. King, 23, was being held in custody by South Korea at the airport in Incheon, near Seoul, and in the process of being expelled when he fled.
After passing through airport security, he unexpectedly joined a tour group to the Korean border village of Panmunjom, a popular tourist spot inside the 248-km-long (154-mile) demilitarized zone, or DMZ.
A member of the tour later told CBS News that King, who was reported to be in civilian clothes, gave “out a loud ‘ha ha ha’ and just runs in between some buildings”.
Pentagon officials said that UN Command security forces who had been escorting the tour group chased King, who is from Racine, Wisconsin, but could not catch him.
Adm John Aquilino, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed that an army private “made a run across the demilitarized zone in the Joint Security Area. He was picked up by the North Koreans,” according to NBC News.
The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said during a news conference on Tuesday that King had entered North Korea “intentionally and without authorisation”.
“There’s a lot that that we’re still trying to learn, but what we do know is that one of our service members who was on a tour willfully and without authorisation crossed the military demarcation line,” Austin told Pentagon reporters. Austin said King was probably now in North Korean custody.
A US state department spokesperson said that the department “has not reached out to the North Koreans or other governments” on the matter.
Adam Smith, a senior Democrat on the House armed services committee, told CNN that North Korea’s detention of a US soldier posed a serious diplomatic problem since the US and North Korea do not maintain diplomatic relations.
“If a US soldier is held in North Korea, our priority must be securing his return,” Smith said.
A tourist from New Zealand who was in King’s group told the Associated Press that upon the end of their tour, their group was “sort of milling around” while being watched by both South Korean and American soldiers. The tourist said soldiers on the North Korean side seemed to be inside a building. She then noticed a man “running what looked like full gas towards the North Korean side”.
It is not clear that King, 23, who was scheduled to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, wants to return to US soil. He was released from two months detention on assault charges, including damaging a police car, on 10 July and could face additional military disciplinary actions and discharge from the service on his return to the US, according to the Associated Press.
King’s uncle Carl Gates told the Daily Beast that the soldier was “breaking down” over a family tragedy. Gates explained that his son, King’Nazir, had struggled with a rare genetic condition, SPTLC 2, before passing away from the disease in February aged six.
“When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away … Travis started [being] reckless [and] crazy when he knew my son was about to die,” Gates said. “It seemed like he was breaking down. It affected Travis a lot.”
His family described King as a quiet loner who did not drink or smoke and enjoyed reading the Bible.
“I can’t see him doing that intentionally if he was in his right mind,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told the Associated Press. “Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt nobody. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself.”
A US army spokesman said King is a cavalry scout in the 1st Armored Division who had joined the service in January 2021, according to CNN. His service awards include the national defense service medal, the Korean defense service medal and the overseas service ribbon.
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC7 she was “shocked” by the news. “I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Gates told the network, adding that she heard from her son several days ago and he told her that he’d be returning to his base in Fort Bliss.
King seems to be the first US soldier to defect to North Korea since 1962 when James Dresnok, who was facing court-martial for taking an unauthorized overnight leave, walked across the heavily fortified border to the North.
This apparent defection presents a headache for US officials, and comes amid tense relations between the two Koreas, and between Washington and Pyongyang. On Tuesday, the USS Kentucky, a nuclear-powered submarine, arrived at South Korea’s Busan naval base.
Admiral Aquilino said the visit was a “critical” demonstration of US power, according to NBC News.
“We assure our allies and partners often, and this is just one of those demonstrations,” he said.
Sean Timmons, with Tully Rinckey, a law firm that specializes in military legal cases, told the Associated Press that if King is trying to present himself as a legitimate defector fleeing either political oppression or persecution, it would be up to North Korea’s leadership to decide if he can stay.
“It’s going to be up to the whims of their leadership, what they want to do,” Timmons said.