US soldier believed to be detained by North Korea after ‘willfully’ crossing border

The US Army has identified a soldier who crossed the demarcation line into North Korea as Pvt. Travis King, a cavalry scout who joined the military in January 2021.

King had been on a tour of a border area as a civilian when he crossed into North Korea on Tuesday, following a yet unclear sequence of events that come at a time of fraught diplomacy and rising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

US Forces Korea spokesperson Col. Isaac Taylor said Tuesday that a US soldier “willfully and without authorization” crossed the line during a regular tour of a section of the buffer zone between North and South Korea known as the Joint Security Area (JSA).

“We believe he is currently in (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) custody and is working with our (Korean People’s Army) counterparts to resolve this incident,” Taylor said in a statement, referring to North Korea’s military.

King’s motive for crossing the border remains unclear. An army official told CNN the private was set to be administratively separated from the US Army after facing disciplinary action for assault.

King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC she was “shocked” after being told by the US Army that her son had crossed into North Korea.

“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Gates told ABC, adding that she heard from her son several days ago and he told her that he’d be returning to his base in Fort Bliss.

King had spent 50 days in a detention facility in South Korea, according to two US officials, though it is unclear when or where he was held.

One of the officials told CNN the private was escorted to the airport to return to the United States, but the escorts were unable to accompany him to the gate and he did not board his flight.

It remains unclear how he was then able to join the tour of the JSA, which lies along the 160-mile-long and 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has separated North and South Korea for decades.

The JSA is the most recognizable part of the DMZ, and tours of the area are open to the public and organized by the United Nations Command, which secures the area.

Unlike most of the heavily fortified zone, the actual border line between North and South Korea at the JSA does not have a physical barrier.

Pvt. Travis King

At the time of his rotation in South Korea, King was assigned to the 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas, according to Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee.

King is administratively attached to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Dubee said.

King has no deployments on his record. His military awards include routine decorations provided to soldiers with his rank and experience – the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal, and the Overseas Service Ribbon.

US officials told CNN King had been held in a designated detention facility under the Status of Forces Agreement with South Korea, which defines how US service members, their family, and other Defense Department personnel are processed in a foreign country, including its justice system.

According to a summary of the agreement from US Forces Korea, pre-trial confinement can be at a US facility, but post-trial confinement is in a South Korean prison. It is unclear where King was detained.

On Wednesday, South Korean police told CNN King was transferred to US military police by South Korean authorities following an incident last September.

Police said King was involved in an assault incident involving a South Korean national or nationals. He was transferred after an investigation and without detention since the alleged assault was not severe enough for an arrest, police told CNN. It’s unclear if this was the same incident King faced disciplinary action over.

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