Yesterday afternoon, a US soldier was taken and held in North Korea after he crossed the border from South Korea without authorization, even though the US specifically instructs soldiers not to cross into the North.
The soldier was 23 year old Travis King on a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) Tour reportedly to face disciplinary action as soon as he was to land on US soil. This was because of reports of him getting into fights in South Korea and documents showing he damaged a police car, and was thus being sent back to be adequately dealt with. This may have been the motivation behind his following actions. He slipped by his designed escort at customs at Incheon Airport where he was due to board a flight. From there, he travelled 54km to the border where he was reportedly heard laughing loudly before running headfirst into the North Korean territory. The United Nations Command which operates the DMZ reports that the soldier has now most likely been captured by DPRK, and there has been no contact since.
It is also concerning for the USA
The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says that the main concern of the Pentagon is of the safety and security of the soldier. It is also concerning for the USA as this incident happened to coincide with the arrival of a US nuclear missile submarine in South Korea as a response to recent North Korean missile testing. It has been speculated however, that the two are not a coincidence, and the soldier may be a valuable bargaining chip for North Korea in future dealings.
This is also true considering the harsh history of US detainees in North Korea, many of whom have been imprisoned like American student Otto Warmbier who was jailed for stealing a hotel sign, and returned to the USA in a coma that proved fatal. This has left many worrying about the security of the soldier.
However, it also has to be considered that the soldier was not taken unwillingly. According to eyewitness reports, he quite willingly and intentionally crossed the border, sparking conspiracy theories. Jacco Zwetsloot, host of the North Korea podcast says that there is “no way this person could escape from the airport one day and book on to one of these tours the next.” He speaks from experience as a former worker of a tour company that took US soldiers to the JSA and explains that it is a matter of days to be authorised to go on one of these trips, involves submitting your passport and military ID to the UN Command. Additionally, with the tightening of security, it all points to the soldier’s actions being carefully pre-planned.
In a time of tense relations between the USA and North Korea, navigating the facts of this incident will prove challenging, especially because of a history of withholding information and intense privacy from the latter nation. Even King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said she had no idea of the reasoning behind her son’s actions and that he “had to be out of his mind.” Regardless, the incident is now being investigated by US Forces Korea, and only time will reveal more of the muddy details.