North Korea has likely arrested a U.S. national—possibly a soldier—who crossed the North Korean border without authorization while on a tour. He is presumed to be held in North Korean custody, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
“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),” the local United Nations Command (UNC) announced in a tweet.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) the tweet referred to is situated in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas—a strip of land 160 miles (250 kilometers) long and about 2.5 miles wide (4 kilometers) that is filled with landmines and heavily guarded by military personnel on each side.
“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” the UNC added, referring to the North Korean military.
The South Korean army identified the person as Travis King, a U.S. army soldier with the rank of private second class, South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, though the paper later deleted the name.
According to the Dong-a and the Chosun Ilbo newspapers, the man arrived with a group of visitors that included civilians at the Panmunjom truce village when he suddenly bolted over the brick line marking the border.
While there are very few cases of Westerners or South Koreans defecting to the North, an estimated 30,000 North Koreans have crossed the border to the south since the 1950s.
Colonel Isaac Taylor, spokesperson for the U.S. Forces in South Korea (USFK) and the U.N. Command, declined to confirm whether the individual was a U.S. Army soldier or a member of the USFK, saying he had nothing to add to the UNC statement.
“We’re still doing some research into this, and everything that happened,” he told Reuters. At the time of writing, neither the White House, the U.S. State Department, nor the Pentagon have issued a statement.
Tourism agencies have been organizing visits to the JSA since the 1960s. An annual youth pilgrimage from the Catholic Church includes a 6-day peace walk to the DMZ, while the U.N. has held its own tours for its staff.
“A big part of our role here at the JSA is to increase the knowledge of the security situation up here,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel McShane, Joint Duty Officer for the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. “We aim to support the stability of the armistice and promote the continued prosperity of the Republic of Korea.”
The JSA has a significant historic importance as the location where the armistice agreement to end the Korean War was signed in 1953.
The JSA is located just 30 miles north of Seoul, the South Korean capital.
The news comes as the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine, the U.S.S. Kentucky, to South Korea for the first time in four decades as part of an agreement signed in April in response to North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear missile development.
“This port visit to Busan reflects the United States’ ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea for our extended deterrence guarantee,” the U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement.