The American Detained in North Korea After Crossing the Border Was a US Soldier, Officials Say

July 18, 2023
truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas

SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. officials say an American detained after crossing the border from South Korea into North Korea was a U.S. soldier.

There were no immediate details about how or why the soldier crossed the heavily fortified border or whether the soldier was on duty. The four officials spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of a public announcement.

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.

The crossing happened during heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. The American-led U.N. Command overseeing the area tweeted earlier Tuesday that the detained U.S. citizen was on a tour to the Korean border village of Panmunjom and crossed the border into the North without authorization.

It said that he is currently in North Korean custody and that the U.N. Command is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident.

North Korea’s state media didn’t immediately report on the border incident.

Panmunjom, located inside the 248-kilometer-long (154-mile-long) Demilitarized Zone, is jointly overseen by the U.N. 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 a popular tourist spot.

Known for its blue huts straddling concrete slabs that form a military demarcation line, Panmunjom has drawn visitors on both sides, who want to see what the Cold War’s last frontier looks like. No civilians live at Panmunjom.

Tours to the southern side of the village reportedly drew around 100,000 visitors a year before the pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. The tours fully resumed last year.

In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues raced toward freedom. The soldier was hit five times before he was found beneath a pile of leaves on the southern side of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.

The most famous incident at Panmunjom happened in August 1976, when two American army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. The U.S. officers had been sent out to trim a 40-foot (12-meter) tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint. The attack prompted Washington to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers toward the DMZ to intimidate North Korea.

Panmunjom also is where an armistice that ended the Korean War was signed. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war. The United States still stations about 28,000 troops in South Korea.

There have been a small number of U.S. soldiers who fled to North Korea during the Cold War, including Charles Jenkins, who deserted his army post in South Korea in 1965 and fled across the DMZ. He appeared in North Korean propaganda films and married a Japanese nursing student who had been abducted by North Korean agents. He died in Japan in 2017.

In recent years, some Americans have been arrested in North Korea after allegedly entering the country from China. They were later convicted of espionage, subversion and other anti-state acts, but were often released after the U.S. sent high-profile missions to secure their freedom.

In May 2018, North Korea released three American detainees – Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song – who returned to the United Sates on a plane with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a short-lived period of warm relations between the longtime adversary nations. Later in 2018, North Korea said it expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance.

The releases came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was engaged in nuclear diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump but the high-stakes diplomacy collapsed in 2019 amid wrangling over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea.

Their freedoms were a striking contrast to the fate of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died in 2017 days after he was released from North Korea in a coma after 17 months in captivity. Warmbier and other previous American detainees in the North were imprisoned there over a variety of alleged crimes, including subversion, anti-state activities and spying.

The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody.

Tuesday’s border crossing happened amid high tensions over North Korea’s barrage of missile tests since the start of last year. The United States earlier Tuesday sent a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades as deterrence against North Korea.

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Copp reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

 

 

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