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US soldier’s NK defection raises alarm over JSA tour security

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
July 25, 2023

The defection of a US soldier to North Korea has brought forth significant questions about the means and motives behind his crossing of the inter-Korean border within the Joint Security Area in the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.

The soldier, identified by the US Army as Travis King, holds the rank of Private Second Class and has been serving in the army since 2021. But it appears that King warrants additional attention from the US Forces Korea, as he faced fines or prosecution for charges related to assault and property damage during his tour of duty in South Korea.

The defection to North Korea during the JSA tour is deemed “technically” possible, South Korean and US military officials — who wished to remain anonymous — told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

One unnamed official highlighted the discrepancy in the number of security guards present at the South Korean side of the JSA. A typical group of 40 tourists usually outnumbers the fewer than 10 security guards on duty, meaning it would be possible to run into the North Korean side of the building without being stopped in time.

Two other sources further explained that the presence of unarmed security guards would have made it more challenging to promptly subdue Travis.

Since 2018, the JSA has been disarmed following an inter-Korean military agreement. As a result, both the United Nations Command and North Korean soldiers in the area do not carry weapons.

The JSA straddles the military demarcation line. This line consists of a narrow concrete boundary that acts as the dividing line between South Korea and North Korea.

It is therefore extremely challenging to prevent someone from swiftly crossing the brick line should they make a sudden attempt to defect, one of the officials said. There have been instances where security guards caught tourists who tried to cross the inter-Korean border in the JSA.

The lack of immediate physical deterrents and the limited response time significantly decrease the ability to halt such an occurrence effectively, they said.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday confirmed the deliberate defection of the US soldier to North Korea within the JSA. The US believes King is currently in North Korean custody, Austin added. The White House has also acknowledged the incident and mentioned that the US is working with its “North Korean counterparts to resolve this incident.”

“We communicate with the North Koreans almost every day,” Colonel Isaac Taylor, a spokesperson for United Nations Command said Wednesday. “It’s a critical part of UNC’s job that we take great pride in.”

“Most days, it’s about routine business. It might be dealing with some level of maintenance in the DMZ, firefighting or right-to-flight operations in the DMZ, or our joint oversight of the JSA.”

King was fined earlier this year for damaging a police patrol car in October of the previous year, according to a South Korean court. Additionally, he faced prosecution for an assault charge in a separate incident in September of the same year. It is alleged that King repeatedly punched a South Korean individual in the face in a dispute that occurred while drinking at a club near Hongdae in Seoul’s Mapo-gu.

King was released on Monday last week after serving approximately two months in a South Korean prison for the assault charges, according to the US officials.

Originally, King was scheduled to be sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face further disciplinary actions. The US service member was escorted to the customs checkpoint at Incheon Airport, but then managed to elude authorities and exited the terminal. Subsequently, he joined the JSA tour on Tuesday.

Two tour companies, which have previously organized JSA tours, confirmed to The Korea Herald that general tours for foreign nationals have been suspended since 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to information provided by one tour company, Travis appears to have participated in a “special tour run by the United Service Organizations,” a nonprofit organization that operates independently from the US Department of Defense. The primary mission of the USO is to uplift the well-being of military service members and their families.

The company explained that only US service members and their family members are eligible to join the JSA tour. USO Korea also operates an information desk at Incheon Airport.

But The Korea Herald was unable to confirm whether King forged his identity to gain access to the JSA. Generally, foreigners are required to present their passports to participate in the JSA tour.

Within the JSA, there are a total of seven buildings situated along the military demarcation line, serving as venues for military armistice talks and various other purposes. Among these buildings, the United Nations Command manages four blue-colored buildings, while the North Korean side oversees three gray-colored buildings.

It appears that King ran through these buildings and successfully crossed the military demarcation line.

“To our right, we hear a loud HA-HA-HA and one guy from OUR GROUP that has been with us all day — runs in between two of the buildings and over to the other side!!,” Mikaela Johansson, a Swedish national who claimed to be on a tour of the JSA said on Facebook. Her post was first reported by NK News.

King’s actions and movements suggest that his defection could be premeditated.

But Rep. Thae Yong-ho, a defector-turned-lawmaker from the ruling People Power Party, said on Wednesday that the longstanding stalemate in relations between North Korea and the US would make it unlikely for North Korea to promptly repatriate King.

“Nevertheless, for the sake of his human rights, the US should engage in negotiations for repatriation,” he said. “If necessary, the US should utilize diplomatic channels, including foreign embassies in Pyongyang, to seek consular access for him.”

But the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles US consular affairs, is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thae said the US may need to seek alternative channels such as through embassies of countries such as China, Russia, Vietnam, Iran or Syria.


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