By Hongji Kim and Phil Stewart
PAJU, South Korea/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. officials scrambled on Wednesday to determine the fate of an American soldier who made an unauthorized crossing into North Korea, handing Washington a new crisis in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a regular briefing the Pentagon had “reached out” to counterparts in North Korea’s Korean People’s Army about the soldier, Private Travis King, but added: “My understanding is that those communications have not yet been answered.”
The Pentagon said King, 23, who joined the Army in 2021 and was facing disciplinary action, crossed into North Korea on Tuesday “wilfully and without authorization” while on an orientation tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between the two Koreas.
North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the incident and its mission to the United Nations in New York has not responded to requests for comment.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told a briefing the Biden administration was still gathering the facts, while the State Department said U.S. officials were trying to ascertain King’s whereabouts.
Miller said the U.S. had also engaged with Sweden, which acts as a diplomatic channel for Washington with Pyongyang, but added: “We are still trying to gather information here about the whereabouts of Private King.”
“The administration has and will continue to actively work to ensure his safety and return him home to his family,” Miller said.
The incident comes at a time of high tension on the Korean peninsula, with the arrival on Tuesday of a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine, and the test launch early on Wednesday of two ballistic missiles into the sea by North Korea.
Army Colonel Isaac Taylor, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea, said on Tuesday the U.N. Command (UNC), which oversees security for the border area, was “working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident.”
Taylor said the communication had been over a daily hotline with the North Koreans, though he did not elaborate on any response.
King was on a tour of the Panmunjom truce village when he suddenly dashed across the Military Demarcation Line that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, U.S. officials said.
His motive is not known. While based in South Korea, he faced accusations of assault and damaging a police car in an October incident. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in February to a fine, a court document seen by Reuters showed.
Carl Gates, the brother of King’s mother Claudine Gates, told the Daily Beast his nephew had been “breaking down” after the tragic death of his 7-year-old cousin earlier this year.
Gates said his son died in late February from a rare genetic disorder and was on life support in his final days.
“When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away … Travis started (being) reckless (and) crazy when he knew my son was about to die,” the outlet quoted Gates as saying. “I know it was related to what he did.”
Claudine Gates, told ABC News she was shocked at the news her son had crossed into North Korea. “I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” she said.
King had finished serving detention in South Korea and was transported by the U.S. military to the airport to return to his home unit in the United States, two U.S. officials said.
He had passed alone through security to his gate and then fled, one official said. Civilian tours of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) are advertised at the airport and King appeared to have decided to join one, an official said.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles ties with North Korea, said all tours to Panmunjom had been cancelled indefinitely at the U.N. Command’s request.
It was unclear how long North Korean authorities would hold the soldier, but analysts said the incident could be valuable propaganda for the isolated country.
In the past when Americans have been detained in North Korea, they have been put on trial and sentenced, but eventually released, often following high-level diplomatic intervention. Incidents involving soldiers, though, have been extremely rare.
“We don’t know enough yet about King’s intentions, and there just isn’t really a comparable precedent to clue us into how the North Koreans might assess the situation,” said Jenny Town, director of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea-monitoring project. “We’ll have to just wait and see.”
A former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea said King may be used as a propaganda tool, but it was not clear how long North Korea would want to exploit his presence.
“Looking at previous cases of U.S. servicemen who went into the North, holding an American soldier is probably a not very cost-effective headache for the North in the long run,” said Tae Yong-ho, now a member of South Korea’s parliament.
(Reporting by Josh Smith, Ju-min Park, Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul, David Brunnstrom, Phil Stewart, Daphne Psaledakis, Simon Lewis and Idrees Ali in Washington, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Oatis)