An American citizen who crossed into North Korea without authorization on Tuesday has been detained by North Korean authorities, the US-led United Nations Command said.
The American national crossed into North Korea during a tour of Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area, which straddles the inter-Korean border, becoming the latest American citizen to be detained by the reclusive communist country.
The UN Command said in a statement that it was working with the North Korean military “to resolve this incident” but gave no further information.
Both the UN Command and the North Korean People’s Army keep officers on duty at Panmunjom, the only point of contact on the 155-mile-long Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
The UN Command is allowing tour groups into the Joint Security Area, which was created as part of the 1953 armistice that stopped the Korean War 70 years ago next week. Tourists can visit the area of South Korea while unarmed soldiers walk close behind.
The man arrested Tuesday was the first known American to be held in North Korean custody since Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained for a month after illegally entering the country from China in 2018.
The American student Otto F. Warmbier was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016, accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel. Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being held for 17 months in North Korea, Mr. Warmbier, then 20, was flown from Pyongyang to Ohio, his home state, in a coma in June 2017. He died a week later.
Although the inter-Korean border is strewn with termini and guarded by layers of high barbed wire fences, people from both Koreas have crossed the DMZ, as well as several American soldiers stationed in the South.
In 2014, an unidentified American was arrested on a riverbank near the South’s western border with North Korea after trying to swim into the North. After he was captured, he told South Korean officials that he intended to go to North Korea to meet its leader, Kim Jong-un. Before he entered North Korea from China, Mr. Lowrance was also detained by South Korean soldiers as he approached the inter-Korean border.
But defections through Panmunjom are very unusual.
A South Korean soldier assigned to the Joint Security Area defected to the North in 1991. In 2017, a North Korean soldier ran across Panmunjom through a hail of bullets from fellow communist soldiers trying to stop him. The defector survived multiple bullet wounds.
Relations between North Korea and the United States have deteriorated in recent years as the North has expanded its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of international sanctions.
The fate of American citizens held in North Korea is not always clear. Some are voluntarily released while others faced criminal charges of committing “hostile acts” and were only released when US officials, such as former President Bill Clinton, visited Pyongyang to request their release.
North Korea released three American detainees in 2018 after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang to retrieve them. North Korea treated their release as a sign of good will and a compassionate diplomatic gesture aimed at easing Mr. Kim’s summit with President Donald J. Trump in Singapore later that year.
Panmunjom has long been a popular tourist destination for foreign visitors in South Korea. It is the only place within the 2.5 mile wide DMZ where tourists are allowed. It is also the only place where outsiders can sometimes view North Korean soldiers up close.
On a typical tour, visitors are escorted into the Joint Security Area by South Korean and American soldiers wearing UN armbands. They view the Bridge of No Return, where Korean POW exchanges took place in 1953. They also visit a memorial to a South Korean soldier who was shot dead during a firefight triggered by the defection of a Soviet citizen to the West through Panmunjom in 1984.
At Panmunjom, no wall or fence separates the two Koreas. Only a low cement slab barely half a foot high marks the official boundary line. But no visitors from either side are allowed to step over the line, as President Trump did when he met Mr. Kim in 2019. A highlight of the tour comes when visitors are escorted into a blue joint conference room and allowed to walk in the North Korean half.
North Korean soldiers keep a close eye on the visitors from the South, sometimes peeking into the common conference room. But since the pandemic, they have avoided approaching outside visitors.