A U.S. Army soldier appears to have defected to North Korea and is believed to now be detained in custody by the communist nation's military force, the Korean People's Army, Breitbart reported.
The shocking and unusual incident reportedly occurred Tuesday afternoon local time while the U.S. soldier was taking part in a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area in the village of Panmunjom which features the iconic Military Demarcation Line that has separated the two halves of the Korean peninsula since an armistice agreement ended the Korean War in 1953.
The incident was first revealed by the U.S.-led United Nations Command that oversees the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone, which tweeted early Tuesday morning, U.S. time, that "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 tweet added.
Breitbart noted that it was quickly revealed that the "U.S. National" was actually a U.S. Army soldier who was briefly identified by South Korean media as Private Travis King. That identification was swiftly deleted by the South Korean media source but was later confirmed by U.S. military and media sources.
The Associated Press reported that the U.S. soldier, Army Private 2nd Class Travis King, is believed to be the first U.S. citizen detained in North Korea in five years, and it is unclear what sort of efforts are underway, if any, to secure his return.
King, who enlisted in 2021 and was assigned as a cavalry scout to the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division stationed in South Korea, had just been released from a South Korean jail about a week earlier after serving time on assault charges.
He was set to be transferred back to the U.S. to face additional military discipline and eventual dishonorable discharge and had been escorted to an airport on Monday for the flight home to Fort Bliss, Texas. However, he was left unescorted after he went through customs and is believed to have subsequently left the airport instead of getting on the plane.
Though details remain unclear, King somehow ended up in the midst of a civilian tour of the JSA at Panmunjom on Tuesday and dashed across the border into North Korea at an opportune moment.
CBS News reported that Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin remarked during a press conference that the U.S. soldier, who he did not identify by name, had "willfully and without authorization" crossed the border into North Korea, more formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"We believe that he is in DPRK custody," the secretary continued, "and so we're closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier's next of kin and engaging to address this incident."
Austin added, "In terms of my concerns, I'm absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop, and so we will remain focused on this."
According to a witness who was on the same civilian tour, King allegedly let out a laugh suddenly and darted between two buildings to cross the border into North Korea, which sparked an immediate military reaction and confusion, as the witness said, "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."
The remainder of the group was then immediately rushed away from the border and compelled to give statements to authorities before being taken back to their bus to leave the area. "I'm telling you this because it actually hit me quite hard," the witness told the outlet. "It was on the way back in the bus, and we got to one of the checkpoints .... Someone said we were 43 going in and 42 coming back."