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US soldier crosses heavily-fortified border into North Korea, silence prevails

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North Korea has chosen to remain silent following an unprecedented incident in which a United States soldier crossed the heavily-fortified border between South and North Korea. The fate of US Private 2nd Class Travis King, who voluntarily bolted into North Korea during a tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday, remains unknown as there has been no word from North Korea regarding the matter.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s state media made no mention of the incident, and the country’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond immediately to Reuters’ requests for comment.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later confirmed that an active US service member had deliberately crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea without authorization. Speaking at a press briefing, Austin stated, “We are very early in this event, and so there’s a lot that we are still trying to learn, but what we do know is that one of our service members who was on a tour willfully and without authorization crossed the military demarcation line. We are closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin and engaging to address this incident.”

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles towards the eastern sea on Wednesday morning. However, analysts believe this sabre-rattling is unrelated to the US soldier’s border crossing. Instead, they suggest it may be connected to the arrival of a US nuclear-armed submarine in the port city of Busan on Tuesday, marking the first visit by such a submarine equipped with nuclear weapons since the early 1980s.

Experts predict that North Korea will likely exploit the soldier for propaganda purposes in the short term and potentially use him as a bargaining chip in the future. Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, stated, “It’s likely that North Korea will use the soldier for propaganda purposes in the short term and then as a bargaining chip in the mid-to-long term.”

According to reports, King, 23, served as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division and had spent nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault. He was released on July 10 and was scheduled to be sent home on Monday to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced further military discipline and discharge. However, he left the airport in South Korea before boarding his flight to the US and later joined the Panmunjom tour, ultimately running across the border into North Korea on Tuesday afternoon.

The US Army released King’s name and some limited information following notification of his family. However, additional details were provided by anonymous US officials due to the sensitivity of the matter.

While cases of US or South Korean citizens defecting to North Korea are rare, over 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953 to escape political oppression and economic difficulties.

Panmunjom, situated within the 248km-long (154-mile) Demilitarized Zone, has been jointly overseen by the UN Command and North Korea since its establishment at the end of the Korean War. The area has occasionally witnessed bloodshed but has also served as a venue for diplomacy and tourism. Known for its blue huts spanning the concrete slabs that form the demarcation line, Panmunjom attracts visitors from both sides who wish to witness the last frontier of the Cold War. However, no civilians reside in Panmunjom, and North and South Korean soldiers confront each other while tourists capture photographs.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tours to the southern side of the village reportedly drew approximately 100,000 visitors annually. The tours resumed fully last year after South Korea imposed restrictions on gatherings to mitigate the spread of the virus.

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