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A U.S. soldier fled across the border to North Korea

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The U.S. maintains a military force of nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea. Every so often, there's an incident involving one of them, but today's episode was extremely unusual. A U.S. soldier fled across the border to North Korea, where he's now being held. For the latest, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Greg, this border between North and South Korea is extremely tight in terms of security. How did this happen?

MYRE: Well, the U.S. military says the soldier, identified as Pvt. Second Class Travis King, was actually part of a tour group visiting the border area. Now, despite all the tensions and the troops from both North and South Korea at this border, these tours are allowed in the border village of Panmunjom. King was in civilian clothes, and he suddenly broke away from the group and ran to the North Korean side. And so one of the real oddities here is that this is often called the most heavily fortified border in the world, yet in this one spot, there's just a line marking the border, no fence or barrier as you have elsewhere along the border, which runs for more than 150 miles.

FLORIDO: So what more do we know about this soldier and why he might have made a run for it?

MYRE: Yeah. According to the Pentagon - or Pentagon officials, Pvt. King was detained for disciplinary reasons fairly recently in South Korea and was in the process of being sent back to the U.S. But he failed to get on a flight that he was supposed to get on and went to the border instead. Now, he's part of the U.S. forces that have been in South Korea since the war there in the 1950s. U.S. troops have remained ever since, totaling just under 30,000. In fact, this month marks the 70 year since the fighting ended, though the two Koreas never signed a peace treaty, just an armistice.

FLORIDO: And so how is North Korea responding to this whole episode?

MYRE: No word yet from North Korea - they were probably shocked as anybody by this. It certainly wouldn't be surprising if North Korea tries to score some propaganda points or makes demands in exchange for handing over the soldier. The last time that any American was detained in North Korea was 2018. This is when a civilian went across the border from China, was detained for a month, then released.

I'm sure some people recall the case of Otto Warmbier. He was the U.S. college student on tour in North Korea. He was accused of taking a poster from his hotel. He was detained back in 2016 and held for more than a year. He was released to U.S. officials in a coma and then died just days after returning to the U.S. And we should note, Adrian, that most of these recent cases - or virtually all the recent cases involve civilians, not U.S. troops. The last time a U.S. soldier voluntarily went across the border is believed to be 1982. It's been about a half-dozen cases like that, dating back to the 1950s.

FLORIDO: Well, beyond this incident, Greg, what is the broader state of relations between North Korea on one side and South Korea and the U.S. on the other?

MYRE: Well, not good and probably even worse than the normal low-level relations. Former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were famously friendly. In fact, they met and shook hands at the exact same spot where this incident took place today. But the nuclear negotiations of several years ago didn't go anywhere, and they've been dormant for several years. North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program and test missiles, including a missile test today. And before today's incident with the U.S. soldier, the main story was about the visit of a nuclear-armed U.S. submarine to South Korea. That's something that hadn't happened since the 1980s.

FLORIDO: I have been speaking with NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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