US officials have attempted to contact North Korean counterparts over an American soldier who bolted across the border from South Korea – but say they are yet to hear back from Pyongyang.
Private Second Class Travis T King was on a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), on the border of the village of Panmunjom, when he suddenly made a dash between the iconic blue buildings and crossed into the secretive country.
The 23-year-old was reportedly facing disciplinary action by the US military at the time. He was also said to have been struggling with the death of his young cousin, according to US media reports.
King is being held by officials in North Korea – the first American to be held in the authoritarian country in nearly five years.
Speaking in Japan, US special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said the United States was “working very hard” to determine King’s status and well-being.
He also said the US was actively working to ensure King’s return, however, did not provide any further details.
His comments come after State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a briefing the Pentagon had “reached out” to counterparts in North Korea’s Korean People’s Army about King.
“My understanding is that those communications have not yet been answered,” he said.
North Korea’s state media – which in the past reported on the detention of US nationals – has also not commented on the incident so far.
‘I thought it was a TikTok stunt’
It comes after a tourist who saw King run across the North Korean border said she first thought it was part of a TikTok stunt.
Sarah Leslie, from New Zealand, was in the same tour group as the soldier.
She said he left the group as their walk around the JSA of the 160-mile demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea was coming to an end.
“We had spent the morning looking at various things in the DMZ and in the afternoon we went into the JSA and were given a tour of the setup in that area, which is where North Korea and South Korea have held meetings,” she told Sky News.
“There’s a number of buildings that straddle the boundary – they are painted bright blue. We had a look around those buildings.
“Then we had left and we were sort of hanging around on the tarmac between those buildings and a larger building on the South Korean side.
“People weren’t really doing much, just taking photos and talking and that kind of thing. I noticed some guy running very, very fast towards the North Korean side.
“I thought it was some kind of stupid stunt that he was doing for TikTok or something like that. I thought that was an incredibly stupid thing to do in a place like that.
“He just didn’t slow down and didn’t stop. There were soldiers who had been supervising us – they yelled.
She continued: “They chased him, but he was going so fast and he was so close to the border that they couldn’t catch him.”
Ms Leslie said the soldier had behaved normally during the tour and had bought a hat at a souvenir shop nearby.
“I noticed that he seemed to be by himself, but there were a couple of other people who were by themselves as well. Most people were family, and friends, in a group.
“I did overhear someone else say that they sat near him or with him and he was very quiet,” she said.
Ms Leslie said she did not know if King was a late addition to the tour but that she had to provide passport details four days beforehand.
‘I just want him home’
King’s mother told ABC News that she was shocked to hear her son was in North Korea and says she just “wants her son to come home“.
His uncle, Carl Gates, said that King had been in a negative state of mind since his 6-year-old cousin died of a rare and untreatable genetic disorder and that he acted out as a result.
Another uncle described King’s actions as “out of his character”.
“Something’s going on. This is not his personality,” he told US media.
“He’s still grieving, and that had a lot to do with what he did.”
King bolted into North Korea a day after he was supposed to travel to a base in the US.
He was scheduled to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge from the service.
He was escorted as far as customs but left the airport in South Korea before boarding his plane. It was not clear how he spent the hours until joining the tour and running across the border.
Reports in South Korea said he was released from prison there on 10 July after serving two months for assault.
Court documents show that in February a court fined King five million in South Korean won (£3,065) after he was convicted of assaulting an unidentified person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October.
The ruling said King had also been accused of punching a 23-year-old man at a Seoul nightclub, though the court dismissed that charge because the victim didn’t want King to be punished.
It was unclear for how long North Korean authorities would hold the soldier but analysts said the incident could be valuable propaganda for the isolated country.
North Korea has remained silent about the detention of King.
The US bans its citizens from entering North Korea – the totalitarian state run by Kim Jong Un where millions live in hunger and poverty.
On Wednesday, North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles into the sea in an apparent protest of the deployment of a US nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time in decades.