Seoul: An American soldier crossed the heavily armed border from South Korea into North Korea, US officials said Tuesday. He went “wilfully and without authorisation,” the US military said, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years at a time of heightened tensions over its nuclear program.
There were no immediate details about why or how the soldier crossed the border or whether he was on duty. The five US officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of a public announcement.
The American-led UN Command overseeing the area tweeted earlier on Tuesday that the detained soldier was on a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom. The soldier purposefully separated himself and ran away from the rest of the group, according to a US official who was not authorised to comment. The official added that it’s “not normal” for active duty service members to go on such tours.
The US military in South Korea also said in a statement that he “wilfully and without authorisation” crossed the military demarcation line into North Korea.
It said that he is believed to be in North Korean custody and that the UN Command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident. North Korea’s state media didn’t immediately report on the border crossing.
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.
Panmunjom, located inside the 248-kilometre-long Demilitarised Zone, has been jointly overseen by the UN Command and North Korea since its creation at the close of the Korean War. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred there, but it has also been a venue for numerous talks and is a popular tourist spot.
Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form the demarcation line, Panmunjom draws visitors from both sides who want to see the Cold War’s last frontier. No civilians live at Panmunjom. In the past, North and South Korean soldiers faced off within metres (yards) of each other.
Tours to the southern side of the village reportedly drew around 100,000 visitors a year before the coronavirus pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. The tours resumed fully last year. During a short-lived period of inter-Korean engagement in 2018, Panmunjom was one of the border sites that underwent mine-clearing operations by North and South Korean army engineers as the Koreas vowed to turn the village into a “peace zone” where tourists from both sides could move around with more freedom.