A U.S. national is believed to be in North Korean custody after straying across the Korean border during a tour, the United Nations Command said Tuesday.
The American was taking part in a tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the guarded demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.
“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). We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” United Nations Command tweeted Tuesday.
“KPA” refers to the Korean People’s Army in North Korea.
Tuesday afternoon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed earlier reporting that the person is a U.S. soldier who was part of a private commercial tour when he suddenly bolted across the border.
Conceding that the Pentagon is still “very early” in its investigation, Austin said during a Defense Department briefing, “What we do know is that one of our service members willfully and without authorization crossed the military demarkation line.”
He added, “We believe that he is in DPRK custody, and so we are closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin and engaging to address this incident.”
“In terms of my concerns,” Austin said, he is “absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop and so we will remain focused on this, and again, this will develop in the next several days and hours. We’ll keep you posted.”
South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo daily, citing South Korea’s army, identified the person as U.S. Army Private 2nd Class Travis King. Austin did not confirm the soldier’s identity while South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it did not immediately have any information on the incident.
The U.S. State Department bans Americans from entering North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long term detention of U.S. nationals.”
The ban was put in place after American college student Otto Warmbier was taken into North Korean custody while on a tour of the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from prison and returned to the United States in a coma.