U.S. officials said Thursday that they had no information on the whereabouts or condition of an Army soldier who crossed into North Korea without authorization and had not spoken to North Korean authorities about the incident.
The soldier, Pvt. Travis T. King, was supposed to fly to Texas on Tuesday to face disciplinary actions for misconduct. But instead of boarding his flight at the international airport in Incheon, about 30 miles west of Seoul, he joined a civilian group that went to tour the joint security area between North and South Korea at Panmunjom, where he ran across the border and was taken into custody by North Korean forces.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the administration is “doing everything we can” to determine the soldier’s condition and “making it clear that we want to see him safely and quickly returned to the United States and to his family.”
But winning Private King’s release — and learning about his status — is greatly complicated by a deep diplomatic freeze between the United States and North Korea, which technically remain at war.
According to a Pentagon official, communications between the United States and North Korea are handled by the American-led United Nations Command, which oversees the southern part of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
Mr. Kirby told reporters that the United States had not ruled out the possibility that the soldier was trying to defect.
“We’re just not in a position to know what the motivation was right now,” Mr. Kirby said. “Obviously, at this point, he’s the only one that really knows. And we haven’t been able to speak to him.”
Mr. Kirby said the Army had been in touch with the soldier’s family and that the United States was eager to arrange for his return from North Korea as soon as possible.
“This is not a country that is known for humane treatment of Americans, or, frankly, anybody else for that matter,” he said.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Sabrina Singh, said the Army had opened an investigation into the incident.
“We have not heard any communication or correspondence from the North Koreans on this incident,” Ms. Singh said, adding that Private King’s current duty status is “absent without leave.”
Approximately two days after Private King crossed into North Korea, U.S. officials are at a loss to explain his motivations for apparently entering the country voluntarily.
Defense officials have said military escorts took Private King to the airport but were not permitted to stay with him past the security screening area because he was not considered to be in custody.
Ms. Singh said that Private King had communicated with his escorts that he was near or at the gate where his flight was boarding and had given them no reason to believe that he would not get on his plane and depart as planned.
He was facing an administrative hearing at Fort Bliss, Texas, where his unit is based. In such proceedings, which are reserved for handling misdemeanor accusations, military personnel are not under arrest or otherwise placed into the custody of law enforcement.
Private King joined the Army in 2021 and served as a cavalry scout. He came to South Korea in early 2022 for what was to be a nine-month tour with a brigade from the First Armored Division. In October he got into an altercation with locals during which he damaged a police car, according to South Korean news media and police officials, and spent time in jail as a result. He was forced to stay behind when his brigade returned to the United States and was administratively reassigned to the Fourth Infantry Division.
According to Army officials, Private King is 23 and entered the service from Milwaukee, Wis.
At his childhood home in Racine, south of Milwaukee, a green truck in the driveway late Wednesday featured a sticker that said “Proud Parent of a U.S. Army Soldier.” An American flag hung in front of the house, and a “We Back the Badge” sign, indicating support for law enforcement, was in the front yard.
Attempts to reach Private King’s family were unsuccessful. A handwritten note on his mother’s door asked for privacy.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Thursday that Private King likely was not thinking clearly and that there was no information to suggest he was a sympathizer of the North Korean government.
Ms. Wormuth said that officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House were scrambling to get more information.
“I don’t think very much is known and I don’t think that we have successfully made contact with the North Koreans,” she said during remarks at the Aspen Security Forum. “Certainly, our priority is to want to get him back to the United States.”
The secretary expressed concern about Private King’s safety, citing the case of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after he was convicted on charges of trying to steal a propaganda poster in a hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In 2017, he was flown home comatose after 17 months in captivity and died soon afterward.
“It makes me very, very concerned that Private King is in the custody of the North Korean authorities,” she said. “I worry about how they may treat him.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Aspen, Colo., and Michael Crowley from Washington.