WASHINGTON — A troubled U.S. soldier who was being sent home from South Korea blended in with a group of tourists bound for the demilitarized zone, where he "bolted" across the border into North Korea, the Defense Department said Tuesday.
The soldier, Private 2nd Class Travis King, has been in the Army since January 2021, Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee said.
He was not wearing handcuffs when he was escorted by military police as far as they could go — a security checkpoint at Incheon Airport, a commercial airport about an hour and a half from the DMZ that separates South Korea from the communist North, a senior administration official said.
But instead of continuing alone to the gate and flying back to the U.S., King tagged along with a group that had just arrived and was heading for Panmunjom, which is the Joint Security Area in the middle of the tense border area guarded by North and South Korean soldiers.
When King took off, the United Nations Command security forces that had been escorting the tour chased him but could not catch him, Pentagon officials said earlier.
King had violated part of the joint security agreement and was being escorted to the airport after having completed his punishment, a senior administration official said.
King, 23, had been scheduled to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, before he left the airport and went across the border, a U.S. official said.
Adm. John Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said an Army private "made a run across the demilitarized zone in the Joint Security Area. He was picked up by the North Koreans."
Aquilino, who was speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, said the soldier crossed the border "willingly and unauthorized."
Aquilino added that U.S. officials had not yet spoken with North Korean officials about the incident. Asked whether there had been a breakdown in U.S. security, he replied, "I don't think we know enough yet to find out."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that U.S. officials were still trying to piece together what exactly happened.
"What we do know is that one of our service members, who was on a tour, willfully and without authorization" crossed the demarcation line.
King is in North Korean hands, Aquilino and Austin said.
The White House is also monitoring the situation, which came amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. It has not yet commented.
King appears to be the first U.S. soldier to have defected to North Korea in half a century. The last was James Dresnok, who was being threatened with a court-martial when he did it in August 1962.
Tours of the area have been ongoing since the 1960s and are organized by private companies, while the U.N. has held its own tours for its staff members.
The area is just 30 miles north of Seoul, the South Korean capital, and it has huge historic importance as the place where the armistice to end the Korean War was signed in 1953.
The news of King's apparent defection emerged as the USS Kentucky, a nuclear-powered submarine, arrived at Busan Naval Base, South Korea, on Tuesday.
"It’s critical for the United States to demonstrate all of our national power to support our alliances," Aquilino said, adding that the U.S. has mutual defense treaties with both Japan and South Korea. "We assure our allies and partners often, and this is just one of those demonstrations."
CORRECTION (July, 19, 2023, 5:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who the last U.S. soldier was to defect to North Korea before Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King. It was Pvt. Joseph T. White, who defected in 1982, not Pfc. James Joseph Dresnok, in 1962.
Andrea Mitchell, Peter Alexander and Courtney Kube reported from Washington. Patrick Smith reported from London.