U.S. Solider Detained in North Korea After Sprinting Across DMZ, Man Was Recently Imprisoned for Assault

Officials say Private Travis King served nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault before his July release.

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United States officials are scrambling to determine the status of Travis King, an American soldier who sprinted into North Korea during a border tour.

According to NBC News, the incident took place Tuesday afternoon when King and about 40 other civilians were visiting a demilitarized zone that divided South and North Korea. Witnesses say they were nearing the end of the tour when King abruptly began laughing and bolted toward the border. New Zealand national Sarah Leslie was among the tourists who witnessed the confusing moment, which she initially dismissed as a possible social media stunt.

“Suddenly I noticed a guy running—a guy dressed in black—running toward the North Korean side,” Leslie told NBC. “My first thought was, ‘What an absolute idiot.’ I assumed he was getting a mate to film it for some kind of TikTok stunt or something like that. But he just didn’t stop and he kept going. … He was going pretty fast.”

Leslie said military personnel, which included American service people, began chasing after King and ordered the other tourists to go into a building on the South Korean side. 

Officials quickly identified the runner as King, a Wisconsin man who had spent nearly two months in a South Korean prison for alleged assault and property damage. According to NBC News, King was released on July 10 and taken to the Incheon International Airport near Seoul on Monday. Authorities said the soldier was supposed to board a flight back to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face possible disciplinary action, including discharge from the service.

King checked in for an American Airlines flight but never boarded because he allegedly forgot a travel document. 

“He passed through all the security points up to the boarding gate but he told the airline staff that his passport was missing,” an Incheon Airport official told CNN, adding King had returned to the airport about half an hour after his flight departed.

The soldier is believed to be in North Korean detention, making him the first American in five years to be detained by the authoritarian state. 

“I worry about him, frankly,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday. “I know everyone here remembers what happened when Otto Warmbier was taken into custody by the North Koreans and I think treated brutally. Obviously, you know, it makes me very, very concerned that Pvt. King is in the hands of the North Korean authorities, I worry about how they may treat him. So we want to get him back.”

Warmbier was an American college student who was arrested in North Korea in 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster. The Ohio man reportedly fell into a coma after suffering a neurological injury during his 17-month incarceration. He was returned to the U.S. in a comatose state in June 2017 and died just several days later.

“We are still gathering all the facts, it is still very early on,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “The administration has and will continue to actively work to ensure his safety and the return of Private King to us and to his family.”

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