Columbus, South Korea— North Korea remained reticent on Wednesday regarding the status of a 23-year-old Army private who “bolted” across the inter-Korean border into the communist nation a day earlier, as more information emerged about the soldier.
South Korea and Japan reported that North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles from its west coast early on Wednesday local time.
Tuesday, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King is in North Korean custody after crossing the heavily fortified frontier “willfully and without authorization.
King, who was recently released from a South Korean prison, was escorted by the military to Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul, the capital, for potential additional disciplinary action in the United States.
A senior administration official told NBC News that instead of proceeding to his gate, he joined a commercial tour group bound for the Joint Security Area. The only place along the approximately 155-mile Demilitarized Zone where North and South Korea interact is the truce village, also known as Panmunjom. It is about an hour and a half from the airport.
Sarah Leslie, a New Zealander who was a member of King’s tour group, reported that the group was “sort of milling around” under the vigilant eyes of South Korean and American soldiers, while North Korean soldiers appeared to be inside a building.
She told The Associated Press that she suddenly saw a male “running what appeared to be at full throttle toward the North Korean side.”
The South Korean and American soldiers ordered the remainder of the group to enter and pursue King, but they were unsuccessful.
“Everyone was stunned and astonished,” Leslie declared. There were some individuals who were unaware of the situation.
According to South Korean court documents, King was fined 5 million won (US$3,950) in February by a Seoul court for offences including damaging public property. Last year in Seoul, he was accused of repeatedly kicking a police patrol vehicle, causing several hundred dollars in damage.
When he was apprehended by officers at the site, he refused to cooperate and yelled obscenities about Koreans and the Korean Army.
According to U.S. Army spokesman Bryce Dubee, King has been a member of the military since January 2021. The Associated Press reported that he was a cavalry scout deployed to the 1st Armoured Division and had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault.
King is the first American known to have been detained in North Korea since Bruce Byron Lowrance, who was apprehended after entering from China in October 2018 and deported several weeks later. He is believed to be the first American soldier to defect to North Korea in over fifty years.
The U.S., which does not have official relations with North Korea, is “engaging” with South Korea and Sweden, whose embassy represents U.S. interests in the country, according to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday.
“Our primary concern at this time is determining his well-being and determining what transpired,” she stated.
North Korea has not mentioned the border crossing in its state-run media, but it continued its accelerated weapons testing on Wednesday.
According to the Japanese Defence Ministry, the missiles launched by North Korea between 3 and 4 a.m. local time (2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday ET) landed east of the Korean Peninsula outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone with no reports of damage to aircraft or vessels in the area.
According to the ministry, they attained altitudes of approximately 30 miles and flew distances of approximately 370 miles.
In recent days, North Korea has expressed opposition to U.S. and South Korean plans for a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) intended to enhance their coordination in the event of nuclear war with the North, as well as a rare visit by a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea. Tuesday marked both the first NCG meeting and the submarine’s arrival.
North Korea has increased its nuclear and missile programs despite international sanctions and stalled denuclearization negotiations. The Hwasong-18 is an intercontinental solid-fuel ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States.
North Korea’s missile launches on Wednesday are “probably unrelated” to King’s border crossing, according to Professor Leif-Eric Easley of Ewha University in Seoul, “but such an incident doesn’t help matters either.”
“The Kim regime is likely to treat a border crosser as a military, intelligence, and public health threat, even though it is more likely that such an individual is mentally distressed and acting impulsively due to personal issues,” Easley wrote in an email. Such unforeseen occurrences emphasize the need for diplomatic channels between governments and regular military communication.
The United States has approximately 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, a treaty ally that has remained in conflict with the North since the Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty 70 years ago this month.
Since 2017, when college student Otto Warmbier died after returning to the United States in a coma after 18 months of detention in North Korea, the State Department has prohibited American travel to North Korea. After being accused of attempting to take a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where he was on a group tour, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour.