A soldier who fled across the Demilitarized Zone from South Korea into North Korea where he was detained has been identified as Pvt. Travis King, according to the Army.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday said that King "willfully and without authorization" crossed the border -- one of the most tensely guarded areas in the world -- and that the Defense Department is closely monitoring and investigating the situation.
King, who is in his early 20s, had just been released from South Korean detention after being held on assault charges, according to multiple outlets, including The Associated Press. He was set to fly back to Fort Bliss, Texas -- reportedly to face additional military discipline -- but instead somehow ended up on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom, a tourist attraction.
North Korea-focused news outlet NK News reported that a woman on the same tour as King later posted on Facebook that the soldier laughed just before ditching the group and crossing the border.
"To our right, we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from OUR GROUP that has been with us all day runs in between two of the buildings and over to the other side!!" she wrote, according to NK News.
King's fleeing to North Korea could put him in jeopardy, and is also likely to create a diplomatic fiasco for the U.S. as it works to secure his release from the belligerent authoritarian state.
North Korea -- ruled with an iron fist by Kim Jong Un, the third Kim to control the country since the Korean War -- has a long history of holding Americans captive until negotiations by U.S. officials lead to their release.
In one recent case, an American college student was arrested during a visit and eventually released in 2017 in a vegetative state. He died days after returning to the U.S.
However, King's case is unusual because his actions all but assured his detention. Typically, North Koreans flee across the border south to escape the oppressive state, nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom because it is so closed off to the outside world.
The United Nations Command -- the unit that operates the Joint Security Area that separates North and South Korea -- first announced the incident in a news release early Tuesday morning.
Military.com reached out to Pentagon officials to corroborate details but was told no further information could be released until King's next-of-kin were told about his situation.
Bryce Dubee, and Army spokesperson, said that King is a cavalry scout who joined the service in January 2021. His rank of private second class after more than two years of Army service suggests King may have been held back for disciplinary issues or for failing to meet standards, though the service did not provide any information indicating that.
Promotion to private first class -- the next highest rank -- is automatic after 12 months of service.
In Korea, Dubee said King was originally assigned to 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, but is currently administratively attached to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
Dubee also noted that King had no combat deployments.
Although such incidents are rare, King's fleeing to North Korea is not without precedent.
During the Cold War, four U.S. soldiers deserted to the secretive and totalitarian country after the armistice was signed in 1953. Perhaps the most famous of them was Sgt. Charles Jenkins who, worried that he would be sent to Vietnam, decided to defect in 1965 -- albeit after first downing 10 beers for courage.
Jenkins would go on to be imprisoned, tortured, forced to wed a Japanese woman and act in propaganda videos before finally being allowed to leave in 2004. He was the only one of the four men to leave North Korea.
Most captives of the North Korean state do not leave without injury or harm. Jenkins lost an appendix, a testicle and part of a U.S. Army tattoo that was hacked off his forearm without anesthetic while in North Korea.
More recently, in 2016, American college student Otto Warmbier was arrested by the regime after it alleged he stole a propaganda poster from his hotel. He eventually suffered a neurological injury and fell into a coma from which he would never awake.
The Trump administration took credit for getting Warmbier released in 2017 after 17 months in captivity. He died at age 22 upon returning to the U.S. after his parents decided to remove his feeding tube.
"I'm absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop," Austin said before adding that "we will remain focused on this."
Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters at a briefing Tuesday that King's condition is "a matter that remains under investigation."
The State Department has a travel advisory posted for North Korea in which it notes that it cannot even provide emergency services to Americans since no relations exist between the two nations. The notice says Americans face "continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention" and there is a "critical threat of wrongful detention."
Miller told reporters that the Pentagon is "in the lead because it's a member of their personnel," but the State Department is offering any needed assistance.
He said that the State Department has not reached out to the North Koreans or other governments such as Sweden, which normally acts as a representative for U.S. interests in the country.
"If there are steps that would be useful for the State Department to take, we of course will not hesitate to take those," Miller added.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.