North Korea likely holding American who crossed border amid tour

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — A U.S. soldier crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea and was believed to be in North Korean custody, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday, creating a fresh crisis for Washington in its dealings with the nuclear-armed state.

The United Nations Command that oversees the demilitarized zone area at the border earlier on Tuesday identified the individual as a U.S. national who had crossed into North Korea without authorization while on a tour. It said the person was likely in custody but offered no other details.

South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo daily, citing South Korea’s army, identified the person as Travis King, a U.S. Army soldier with the rank of private second class. The newspaper later deleted the name.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the identity of the person.

The crossing comes at a sensitive time amid high tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with the arrival of a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine in South Korea for a rare visit in a warning to North Korea over its own military activities.

North Korea has been testing increasingly powerful missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, including a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile launched last week.

Two U.S. officials told Reuters that a U.S. soldier had crossed into North Korea. One said the soldier was believed to be in North Korean custody.

The person was taking part in a tour to the Joint Security Area on the demilitarized zone border separating the two Koreas since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War where soldiers from both sides stand guard.

“A U.S. National on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the U.N. Command said on Twitter.

“We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” it added, referring to North Korea’s People’s Army.

The man was with a group of visitors, including civilians, to the Panmunjom truce village when he suddenly bolted over the brick line marking the border, Dong-a and the Chosun Ilbo daily newspapers reported, citing South Korean army sources.

Col. Isaac Taylor, spokesperson for the U.S. military in South Korea (USFK) and the U.N. Command, declined to confirm whether the individual was a U.S. Army soldier or a member of USFK, saying he had nothing to add to the U.N. Command statement.

“We’re still doing some research into this, and everything that happened,” he told Reuters.

The White House, the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it did not immediately have any information on the border incident.

The U.S. State Department tells U.S. nationals not to enter North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long term detention of U.S. nationals.”

The ban was implemented after U.S. college student Otto Warmbier was detained by North Korean authorities while on a tour of the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from North Korea and returned to the United States in a coma.

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