Travis King North korea detained
Family photo shows a portrait of American soldier Travis King displayed at the home of his grandfather Carl Gates, Wednesday, July 19, 2023 Image Credit: AP

A U.S. soldier who darted across the border from South Korea was detained in North Korea, in a rare case of an American service member being held in one of the world's most isolated states. The incident has sparked a diplomatic emergency at a time of already strained ties between Pyongyang and Washington.

U.S. authorities identified the American as Army Private 2nd Class Travis T. King and said he was believed to be in North Korean custody. They said he was punished for misconduct while serving in South Korea and was being sent back to the United States, when he skipped his flight.

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Here's what we know so far:

Who is Army Private 2nd Class Travis King?

A cavalry scout, King joined the military in January 2021. U.S. officials have not publicly detailed the misconduct for which he was punished while serving in South Korea. King was on a tour of the Panmunjom truce village when he suddenly dashed across the Military Demarcation Line that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, U.S. officials said.

Travis King
U.S. Army soldier Travis King appears in this unknown location, undated photo Image Credit: Reuters

U.S. military personnel escorted him to the airport to be flown to the United States, but he did not board the scheduled flight, a U.S. official told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity. King, who has not served on combat deployments, has medals listed in his provided service record that were perfunctory awards given to soldiers in South Korea, The Post reported.

What was the assault case in South Korea?

While based in South Korea, he faced accusations of assault and damaging a police car in an October incident. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in February to a fine, a court document seen by Reuters showed.

According to the Associated Press, the 23-year-old was recently released from a South Korean prison, where he had been held on assault charges. The AP reported that he was due to be sent this week to Fort Bliss, in Texas, where he could have faced further disciplinary actions and discharge from the service.

Why did he cross into North Korea?

King's motives were not immediately clear. He was visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA) separating North and South Korea while on an "orientation tour," Army Col. Isaac Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. forces in South Korea, said in a statement.

"We're very early in this event, and so there's a lot that we're still trying to learn," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday. The service member "willfully and without authorization" crossed the military demarcation line during a tour, Austin told reporters at the Pentagon, adding: "We will remain focused on this."

The White House said U.S. agencies and the United Nations were "all working together to ascertain more information and resolve the situation."

Family reactions

Carl Gates, the brother of King's mother Claudine Gates, told the Daily Beast his nephew had been "breaking down" after the tragic death of his 7-year-old cousin earlier this year.

Travis King
Myron Gates, uncle of American soldier Travis King, talks about his nephew, Wednesday, July 19, 2023 Image Credit: AP

Gates said his son died in late February from a rare genetic disorder and was on life support in his final days.

"When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away ... Travis started (being) reckless (and) crazy when he knew my son was about to die," the outlet quoted Gates as saying. "I know it was related to what he did." Claudine Gates, told ABC News she was shocked at the news her son had crossed into North Korea. "I can't see Travis doing anything like that," she said.

From where did he cross into North Korea?

Overseen by the United Nations, the frontier area that straddles North and South Korea is one of the most fortified in the world. The JSA is a section of the demilitarized zone, which has separated the North and South since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice.

Travis King
U.S. Private Travis T. King (wearing a black shirt and black cap) is seen in this picture taken during a tour of the tightly controlled Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between the two Koreas, at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, July 18, 2023 Image Credit: Reuters

The JSA has been used for diplomatic discussions, and it's the only place where North Korean and South Korean guards stand face to face, near light-blue buildings on each side of the line.

The JSA in the border village of Panmunjom offers a rare window for visitors into what is technically North Korean and South Korean territory.

Koreans and tourists can visit fourteen "Education and Orientation Program sites" within the demilitarized zone to learn about the Korean War and armistice agreement, according to the United Nations Command.

What is the U.S. doing?

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a regular briefing the Pentagon had "reached out" to counterparts in North Korea's Korean People's Army about the soldier, Private Travis King, but added: "My understanding is that those communications have not yet been answered."

North Korea's state media has made no mention of the incident and its mission to the United Nations in New York has not responded to requests for comment.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told a briefing the Biden administration was still gathering the facts, while the State Department said U.S. officials were trying to ascertain King's whereabouts.

Miller said the U.S. had also engaged with Sweden, which acts as a diplomatic channel for Washington with Pyongyang, but added: "We are still trying to gather information here about the whereabouts of Private King." "The administration has and will continue to actively work to ensure his safety and return him home to his family," Miller said.

What happened to Americans held in North Korea before?

King is the first American known to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years. North Korea has not commented on the incident so far.

Most releases of Americans detained after voluntarily entering the country have come from high-level talks between government officials.

The State Department has imposed a ban on U.S. nationals traveling to North Korea since 2017, after the death of Otto Warmbier. The American student, who traveled to Pyongyang and was detained on charges of stealing a propaganda poster, died soon after being released to U.S. custody and sent home in a coma.

Because there are no diplomatic or consular relations, the U.S. government cannot provide emergency services to its nationals in North Korea, the State Department notes in its travel advisory.

Among the instances of Americans held in North Korea in recent years was Bruce Byron Lowrance, who was detained in North Korea in October 2018 after crossing from China, North Korea's news agency claimed. He was deported to the United States in November 2018, after a historic meeting in Singapore that year between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.