US officials have tried to contact their North Korean counterparts about a US soldier who crossed the border into South Korea – but say they have yet to hear back from Pyongyang.
Private Second Class Travis T. King was on a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border of Panmunjom village, when he suddenly burst through the blue buildings and entered the secret country.
The 23-year-old was reportedly facing disciplinary action from the US military at the time. According to US media reports, he was also said to be struggling with the death of his young cousin.
King is being held by authorities in North Korea — the first American to be held in the dictatorial country in nearly five years.
Speaking in Japan, Sung Kim, the US special envoy to North Korea, said the US was “working very hard” to determine King’s status and well-being.
He also said the United States was actively working to secure King’s return, but did not provide further details.
His comments came after a briefing by State Department spokesman Matthew Miller after the Pentagon said it had “reached out” to its counterparts in North Korea’s Korean People’s Army about King.
“My understanding is that these communications have not yet been answered,” he said.
North Korea’s state media – which has reported the detention of US citizens in the past – has also yet to comment on the incident.
‘I thought it was a Tik Tok stunt’
It comes after a tourist spotted King fleeing across the border into North Korea. He first thought it was part of a Tik Tok stunt..
Sarah Leslie from New Zealand was in the same tour group as the soldier.
He said he left the group because their walk around the JSA, the 160-mile demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, was coming to an end.
“We spent the morning in the DMZ looking at various things and in the afternoon we went to the JSA and were given a tour of the set-up in the area, where North Korea And South Korea has had meetings,” he told Sky News.
“There are a number of buildings that dot the boundary – they are painted bright blue. We took a look around these buildings.
“Then we left and we were walking on the tarmac between these buildings and a large building on the South Korean side.
“People weren’t really doing much, just taking pictures and talking and stuff like that. I saw some guys running really fast towards North Korea.
“I thought it was some kind of stupid stunt he was doing for TikTok or something like that. I thought it was an incredibly stupid thing to do in a place like that.
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“He didn’t slow down and stop, there were soldiers watching us – he shouted.
He continued: “They chased him, but he was going so fast and he was so close to the border that they couldn’t catch him.”
Ms Leslie said the soldier had behaved normally during the visit and had bought a hat from a souvenir shop nearby.
“I noticed that it looked like he was by himself, but there were a few other people who were also by themselves. Most of the people were family and friends in a group.
“I heard someone else say they were sitting next to or near him and he was very quiet,” she said.
Ms Leslie said she did not know King was late for the visit but had to provide passport details four days earlier.
‘I just want him home’
King’s mother told ABC News she was shocked to hear her son was in North Korea and says she just “He wants his son to come home“
His uncle, Carl Gates, said King had been in a negative state since his 6-year-old cousin died of a rare and incurable genetic disorder and acted out as a result.
Another uncle called King’s actions “out of character.”
“Something is going on. It’s not his personality,” he told US media.
“She’s still grieving, and that had a lot to do with it.”
King was scheduled to travel to a base in the United States a day after North Korea attacked.
He was to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could face additional military discipline and discharge from service.
He was escorted through customs but left the South Korean airport before boarding his plane. It was unclear how many hours he spent before joining the tour and fleeing across the border.
Accused of assault
Reports in South Korea said he was released from prison there on July 10 after a two-month assault.
A court in February fined King 5 million South Korean won (£3,065) after he was found guilty of assaulting an unidentified man and damaging a police car in Seoul last October, court documents show.
King was also accused of punching a 23-year-old man at a Seoul nightclub, although the court dismissed the charge because the victim did not want King to be punished, the ruling said.
It was unclear how long North Korean authorities would hold the soldier, but analysts say the incident could be valuable propaganda for the isolated country.
North Korea has remained silent on King’s detention.
The US has banned its citizens from entering North Korea – which is ruled by a totalitarian state. Kim Jong-un Where millions of people are living a life of hunger and poverty.
On Wednesday, North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles at sea for the first time in decades in an apparent protest against the deployment of a US nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea.