The world was shocked on Tuesday when a US soldier deliberately and illegally crossed the inter-Korean border during a group tour of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, becoming the latest US citizen to be held in custody by North Korea.
The exact motive of the soldier, Pvt. Travis T. King, remains unidentified, and U.S. officials said they are working with their North Korean counterparts to free him. North Korea has not yet issued a statement on the incident. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and technically remains at war with the isolated communist country.
If Private King were to defect, he would be the first American armed service personnel to do so since the early 1980s.
Here’s what to know.
Who is Travis King?
Few details are available about Private King, including when he first arrived in South Korea, where 28,500 US troops are based.
Last October, he ran into trouble with the law in South Korea after an altercation with locals during which he damaged a police car, according to South Korean news media and police officials.
He spent time in a South Korean prison on assassination charges, and on Tuesday was supposed to be on a plane to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face disciplinary action in the United States.
He was escorted to Incheon International Airport in Seoul. But instead of getting on the plane, he joined a group tour of the Joint Security Area, which is inside the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and is commonly known as Panmunjom.
It remained unclear how Mr. King managed to leave the airport.
What happened at the border?
Private King was at the border with other tourists and ran over as they watched, according to witnesses in local and international news.
According to one report, unarmed soldiers guarding the tour were unable to apprehend him when he encountered North Korea. The last time he was seen, he was taken into custody by North Korean soldiers.
“On the right we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from OUR GROUP who was with us all day runs between two of the buildings and to the other side!!” a fellow tourist wrote on Facebook, according to NK News. “It took everyone a second to react and understand what actually happened.”
Another tourist, Sarah Leslie, told New Zealand 1News that when Private King raced to the limit, she thought he was doing it for a TikTok video.
“Suddenly, I noticed a man running, dressed in black, what looked like full throttle towards the North Korean side,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘what an absolute idiot’.”
“He just kept going and didn’t stop,” she added.
Eventually, soldiers realized what was happening and chased him, but to no avail, according to the witnesses. The tour was cut short, and the rest of the group was quickly shuffled into a building.
“Everybody was kind of flipping their lids, and when we got into the building it was like ‘oh my God’,” Ms Leslie said.
Mr. King’s mother told ABC News that she last heard from her son “a few days ago,” when he told her he would soon be returning to his base at Fort Bliss.
“I can’t see Travis doing something like that,” Claudine Gates, of Racine, Wis., told the news outlet.
She added that she just wanted “him to come home.”
What is Panmunjom?
Panmunjom is an 800-by-400-yard enclave within the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ that separates the two Koreas. The DMZ was created as a buffer between the rival armies, and Panmunjom has been their only point of contact since the armistice was signed to suspend the Korean War 70 years ago next week.
Originally, there was no dividing line within Panmunjom, and officials and soldiers from both sides could move between borders freely. But when North Korean soldiers murdered two American soldiers with an ax at Panmunjom in 1976, a demarcation line – a thin slab of concrete – was installed to separate the two sides.
Like the rest of the 155-mile-long DMZ, Panmunjom has become a symbol of both the ongoing military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula as well as efforts at reconciliation and unification.
President Donald J. Trump famously walked across the demarcation line to shake hands with Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, in 2019, one of the most iconic scenes of his short-lived diplomatic courtship with the dictator.
What other Americans are North Korea holding?
No American detained by North Korea has ever entered the country through the Joint Security Area, as Private King did on Tuesday.
North Korea is often described as the world’s “most isolated” nation and a “totalitarian” police state that regularly threatens nuclear war with the United States. It was accused of kidnapping foreigners and running a network of prison camps.
However, the North attracted many Americans, scores of whom ended up in prison there during the last decades.
During the postwar years, several American soldiers went AWOL from their bases in South Korea and walked across the heavily armed DMZ. The best known example was that of Charles Robert Jenkins, an army sergeant who defected to North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
Mr. Jenkins was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004. When he was later tried for desertion in a military court, he testified that after his defection, he was taken to a hospital where, without anesthesia, a doctor cut off skin tattooed with the words “US Army “, from his forearm.
In the North, he said he taught English to North Korean military cadets and appeared in anti-American propaganda leaflets and films. Mr. Jenkins died in Japan in 2017.
Some American tourists who traveled to North Korea to catch a glimpse of one of the last remaining socialist resistances in the world were also arrested there. In 2013, Merrill Edward Newman, an American retiree, was released after being held for 42 days on charges of committing hostile acts.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after he was convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel. In 2017, he was placed in a coma after 17 months in captivity and died soon after.
Some Christian evangelists also ended up arrested in North Korea. Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary from Los Angeles, entered North Korea from China on Christmas Day in 2009, holding a Bible in one hand and shouting, “Jesus loves North Korea.” Mr. Park was held for 43 days before he was released and expelled from the country.
Is it easy to get a tour of Panmunjom?
Because of its history and symbolism, Panmunjom has become a popular tourist destination for foreign visitors to South Korea.
But joining a tour requires approval from the US-led United Nations Command, which controls the southern part of the zone while the North Korean People’s Army controls the north. Approval can take days and requires visitors to provide their passport information.
From Panmunjom, tourists can look at the giant flagpole that the North erected in a propaganda war with the South over which side could raise the highest flag.
The highlight of the tour is the three blue structures built for meetings between envoys and other officials in the center of Panmunjom.
Tourists are allowed to enter the central structure, known as T2, where they can step into North Korean territory across the demarcation line. It is the only place in the DMZ where a tourist can legally set foot on North Korean soil.
Private King raced into North Korea between those buildings.
What could happen next?
Mr. Kim’s fate will largely determine whether North Korea, which has yet to comment on his case, will treat him as a defector or an illegal criminal.
A defector would be allowed to live in the North. But those accused of entering the country illegally were often used as bargaining chips.
In recent years, North Korea has not responded to repeated calls for dialogue from Washington. The United States does not have an embassy in Pyongyang. It depends on the Swedish embassy to help protect the interests of Americans held there.
“It is too early to say whether North Korea will treat him as a defector like Jenkins or as someone it can use to try to create a diplomatic breakthrough with the United States by releasing him if it sends a high-level special envoy,” said. Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.