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A US soldier was taken into North Korean custody after crossing the inter-Korean border on Tuesday, in a bizarre incident that comes amid heightened tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
The soldier had been on a guided tour of the Joint Security Area at the heart of the demilitarised zone, or DMZ, that has separated the two Koreas since the 1950s.
The United Nations Command (UNC), the multinational resident force in South Korea, said Tuesday that a US citizen crossed the demarcation line into North Korea.
Colonel Isaac Taylor, a spokesman for US Forces Korea, said later that the man was a US service member who had “wilfully and without authorisation” crossed into North Korea. Taylor said the service member was believed to be in custody and that the US military was working with North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed a US service member had crossed the border without permission. He said the military is trying to reach the man’s family and that the situation would continue to evolve over the coming days.
The service member had recently been released from South Korean custody where he was being held on assault charges and was due to be returned to the US to face additional military discipline, according to a US official.
Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday that the Biden administration’s “primary concern” was “ascertaining clearly the wellbeing of this individual” and “getting to the bottom of exactly what happened”.
She refused to answer several questions from reporters about the soldier, saying the investigation was in a “very early stage” and the administration was “trying to gather as much information as possible”.
As part of a deal between the UNC and North Korea signed in 2018, landmines, guard posts and firearms were removed from the Joint Security Area, which is often used as a venue for negotiations between the Koreas as well as between the North and the US.
While there are no physical barriers preventing visitors to the area from crossing into North Korean territory, tour groups visiting the area from the South are supposed to be closely supervised by UNC troops.
The service member, whose identity has not been released, is believed to be the only American in North Korean custody. The last US citizen known to be detained was in 2018, when a man was held for a month after entering illegally from China.
US student Otto Warmbier was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster. He was held for 17 months before being released and returned to the US in a coma. He died a week later.
Defections by US service members to North Korea are very rare. One, then army sergeant Charles Jenkins, left his post in 1965 and fled across the DMZ. He later said he regretted his decision almost immediately, spending at least seven years as a prisoner and being used frequently as a trophy in North Korean propaganda.
The UNC’s statement was released just hours after Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top official for Asian affairs, announced that the USS Kentucky, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine, had arrived in the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday.
Campbell made the announcement in Seoul after co-chairing the inaugural meeting of a new bilateral nuclear consultative group designed to give Seoul more insight and input into US war planning. It is the first time a US nuclear-armed submarine has paid an open visit to South Korea since the 1980s.
The military deployments are designed to reassure the South Korean public that Washington will defend its ally from any potential attack from North Korea.
But they have provoked a furious response from the North Korean regime. On Monday, Kim Yo Jong, a senior regime official and the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, accused Washington of committing “foolish acts that provoke us even at the risk of its own security”.
Go Myong-hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said that Pyongyang could seize upon the crossing of the US soldier into its territory as “an opportunity to open a direct line of communication with the White House”.
“We have seen signs in recent months that the Kim regime could be ready to engage in dialogue,” said Go. “How it responds to this incident will reveal its true intentions.”
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington