U.S. national in North Korea custody after crossing inter-Korean border

Reuters reports a U.S. national, U.S. Army Private Travis King, is likely to be in North Korean custody after crossing the inter-Korean border during a tour without approval, the United Nations Command said on Tuesday. He was taking part in a tour to the Joint Security Area, the border village in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas where soldiers from both sides stand guard.

South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo daily, citing South Korea’s army, identified King, a U.S. army soldier in the rank of private second class. Reuters could not immediately verify the identity of the person mentioned in the report.

U.S. officials say an American detained after crossing the border from South Korea into North Korea was a U.S. soldier according to the AP.

There were no immediate details about how or why the soldier crossed the heavily fortified border or whether the soldier was on duty. The four officials spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of a public announcement.

Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody. Tuesday’s border crossing happened amid high tensions over North Korea’s barrage of missile tests since the start of last year. The United States earlier Tuesday sent a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades as deterrence against North Korea.

Relations between the US and the north plummeted in 2017 after a US student who had been arrested a year earlier for stealing a propaganda sign was returned to the US in a comatose state and later died. Three US citizens were later freed during Donald Trump’s presidency in 2018. But ultimately, a series of talks held between Kim Jong Un and the former president did little to improve the relationship. North Korea has since tested dozens of ballistic missiles, which were met by a slew of sanctions by the US and its allies.

The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separates the two Koreas and is one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world. 

It is filled with landmines, surrounded by electric and barbed wire fencing and surveillance cameras. Armed guards are supposed to be on alert 24 hours a day.

The DMZ has separated the two countries since the Korean War in the 1950s. The war ended with an armistice, meaning that the two sides are still technically at war.

Dozens of people try to escape North Korea every year, fleeing poverty and famine, but defections across the DMZ are extremely dangerous and rare. (The BBC)

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