The American Detainee in North Korea

An American soldier crossed into North Korea today during a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), which borders the two Koreas. This was where former U.S. president Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2019. He was detained by the North Koreans, and at a time when there has been no dialogue between the United States and North Korea (despite repeated U.S. offers), it will be very difficult to predict what will happen next.

Q1: What happened?

A1: The United Nations Command, which operates the JSA, tweeted this morning at 5:57 a.m. ET that a U.S national had crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) into North Korea during a JSA tour. The U.S.-led command also acknowledged that they believe the American, a man, is currently in North Korean custody and they are working actively with their Korean People’s Army counterparts to resolve the situation.

The incident took place around 3:27 p.m. local time. A Swedish national on the same tour with the American later posted on Facebook that the man had dashed across the MDL and that everyone had to run back to the Freedom House and to their bus after the incident. That account was confirmed by an eyewitness to CBS News, who said they heard the man laugh loudly before the incident. The witness also said there were no North Korean soldiers visible, which has been standard since the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a now-deleted article, South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo had identified the American as private second class Travis King, currently serving with U.S. Forces Korea. While the identity remains unconfirmed, reliable sources within the South Korean military indicate that the American is indeed a soldier within USFK. U.S. officials also later revealed the soldier had faced disciplinary action by the U.S. military and was being sent home to the United States, but did not make his scheduled flight.

This marks the first reported detention of an American in North Korea since 2018, when Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained for a month after entering from China. Since the mid-1990s, there have been about 20 Americans detained for various reasons, including alleged espionage, dissemination of religious information, and “disrespectful” tourist behavior.

Q2: What is the significance of this incident?

A2: The incident happened on the same day the Biden administration held the first Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG), a new alliance institution designed to shore up U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) extended nuclear deterrence that was the primary deliverable of the April state visit by President Yoon to the White House. The USS Kentucky also arrived in Busan today, marking the first known visit by a U.S. nuclear submarine in four decades, and fulfilling a U.S. pledge made in the Washington Declaration. Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, is on the ground in Seoul with a 30-person delegation for the NCG meeting this week.

This incident draws public attention away from this important set of meetings that are designed to build confidence in U.S. security commitments to Korea. At the same time, having top-level White House officials on the ground in Korea could help effect a speedy resolution to the detention (although North Korea has a tendency to hold Americans for weeks, if not months, of detention before releasing them with a coerced apology).

Q3: Will this lead to a resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea?

A3: This is difficult to predict at this time. Previously, when an American citizen got detained in North Korea, this led to an official contact and negotiations between the two countries to discuss the release of the detainees. Former president Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea in 2009 to obtain the release of journalists Laura Ling and Eunha Lee.

But the prospect of a dialogue to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization seems difficult. Yesterday, even before this incident happened, the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong rejected an U.S. offer of talks, saying that such offer is just a ploy. She added that the stronger U.S.-ROK extended deterrence gets, the further this will move North Korea away from the negotiation table.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andy Lim is an associate fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair
Andy Lim
Associate Fellow, Korea Chair