United Nations Command said Tuesday a national of the United States is believed to be taken into custody after entering North Korea without prior authorisation while on a visit to the heavily bolstered border.
UN Command said while referring to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the border between the two Koreas: “A US national on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorisation, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).”
According to CBS News reports, the detained citizen is identified as a US soldier Private 2nd Class Travis King, who was being escorted back to the US for disciplinary reasons before they turned around at the airport and joined a border tour.
A witness also told CBS News that the soldier laughed before running in between some buildings towards North Korea.
“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realised it wasn’t a joke,” the witness said.
“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” it added, referring to the North’s Korean People’s Army.
Since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, the two countries remain technically at war, with a Demilitarised Zone running along the heavily-fortified border.
Soldiers from both sides face off at the JSA north of Seoul, which is overseen by the UN Command.
It is also a popular tourist destination, and hundreds of visitors every day tour the area on the South Korean side.
Former US president Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Panmunjom Truce Village in 2019 and even stood on North Korean soil by stepping across the demarcation line there.
In general, defections between the two Koreas are rare, but far more common in the other direction, when North Koreans seek to escape grinding poverty and repression by fleeing, typically across the northern land border into China.
The last time there was a defection at the JSA was in 2017 when a North Korean soldier drove a military jeep and then ran on foot across the demarcation line at Panmunjom.
He was shot multiple times by his fellow North Korean soldiers as they sought to prevent his escape, but after hours of surgery, he survived.
“Panmonjom is the most likely site this American chose to cross into North Korea because it’s the only location one could attempt such a move out of the whole JSA tour,” Choi Gi-il, a professor of military studies at Sangji University told AFP.