A US soldier who was facing disciplinary action and assault charges has fled to North Korea in a shocking act of defection, sparking a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Pyongyang.
Private 2nd Class Travis King, 23, a cavalry scout in the US Army, crossed the heavily fortified border from South Korea into North Korea on Tuesday, after joining a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) border tour as a civilian.
He is believed to be detained by the North Korean authorities, who have not yet commented on the incident.
King had been released from a South Korean prison where he was being held on assault charges, according to US officials. He was being escorted to an airport to be returned to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was to be administratively separated from the army.
However, he managed to evade his escort at customs at Incheon Airport and made his way to the border crossing about 54km (34 miles) away.
An eyewitness on the same border tour described hearing the soldier laughing loudly before making a run for the North Korean side.
The United Nations Command, which operates the DMZ, said it believed the soldier was now in custody of the North.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon’s main concern was for the soldier’s welfare and that it was working with its allies to resolve the situation.
The defection comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, as the US and South Korea conduct joint military exercises and a US nuclear missile submarine arrived in the South Korean port of Busan.
North Korea has denounced the US moves as provocative and threatened to take countermeasures.
The US State Department has advised its citizens not to travel to North Korea, citing the risk of arrest and long-term detention.
US citizens have been detained by North Korea several times in the past, often for alleged espionage or hostile acts. Some of them have been released after high-level diplomatic interventions.