A US Army soldier who is believed to have been detained after he defected to North Korea from the South reportedly laughed as he ran over the heavily fortified border into the communist country.
The soldier, identified as Travis King, was also in trouble with the US military, according to reports.
US officials told CBS News that the soldier was being flown back to the US from South Korea for disciplinary reasons. The specifics were not immediately clear.
The soldier was escorted to the airport, but did not get on his flight and instead joined in on a civilian border tour before crossing into North Korea.
“This man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings,” a witness who was part of the same tour group as the soldier told the news outlet.
Military personnel quickly responded to the man’s actions, the witness said.
“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” the witness told CBS News.
Two US officials told Reuters that the soldier was due to undergo disciplinary action by the US military before he crossed into North Korea, where he’s at risk of being exploited for official propaganda or tortured to get him to spill any secrets he may know.
The Washington Post reported that the soldier was punished for some kind of misconduct while serving in South Korea.
But instead of proceeding to his gate, a senior administration official told NBC News, he joined a commercial tour group headed for the joint security area. The truce village, also known as Panmunjom, is about an hour and a half from the airport and is the only place along the approximately 155-mile Demilitarized Zone where North Korea and South Korea interact.
Sarah Leslie, a tourist from New Zealand who was in King’s group, said the tour was nearing its end and the group was “sort of milling around” under the watchful eyes of South Korean and American soldiers, while soldiers on the North Korean side appeared to be inside a building.
Suddenly, she noticed a man “running what looked like full gas towards the North Korean side
The South Korean and American soldiers ordered the rest of the group inside and chased after King but couldn’t catch him.
“Everybody was stunned and shocked,” Leslie said. “There were some people who hadn’t even realized what was going on.”
King was initially reported to South Korean police after allegedly punching a Korean national at a night club in Seoul on Sept. 25 last year, but was not indicted because the victim did not want to press charges.
In February he was fined 5 million won ($3,950) in Seoul on charges that included damaging public property, according to South Korean court documents. He was accused of repeatedly kicking a police patrol car in Seoul last year, causing several hundred dollars in damage.
He did not cooperate when apprehended by officers at the scene and was shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army.
King has been serving in the Army since January 2021, according to U.S. Army spokesman Bryce Dubee. He was a cavalry scout assigned to the 1st Armored Division, The Associated Press reported, and served almost two months in a South Korean prison after declining to pay a fine in an assault investigation.
King is the first known American to be detained in North Korea since Bruce Byron Lowrance, who was caught after entering from neighboring China in October 2018 and deported several weeks later. King appears to be the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea in more than 50 years.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the U.S., which does not have official relations with North Korea, was “engaging” on King with South Korea and Sweden, whose embassy represents U.S. interests in North Korea.
“Our primary concern at this time is ascertaining his well-being and getting to the bottom of exactly what happened,” she said.
North Korea has not mentioned the border crossing in its state media but continued Wednesday with weapons testing that has accelerated since last year.