The US soldier who has been detained in North Korea after he sprinted across the border was photographed moments before the incident as he enjoyed a tour of the ultra high-security area.
Private 2nd Class Travis King, 23, is seen wearing a black t-shirt and hat purchased from a gift shop at the demilitarized zone as he peers across the border into the secretive communist country.
Witnesses said he laughed hysterically as he made the mad dash on Tuesday after fleeing his military superiors and joining the tour. The picture surfaced as it emerged King had a string of run-ins with police in South Korea for offences which included battering a man in a night club and damaging a police car.
Fears grew for King’s welfare on Wednesday morning as North Korea had still not produced the soldier or acknowledged his arrest. Unconfirmed reports have said King ‘defected’ and his mother spoke out overnight on Tuesday to say she couldn’t fathom her son doing ‘anything like that’.
Court documents reveal that months earlier, King had faced two assault allegations and was fined by a South Korean court for damaging a police car.
US Army Private 2nd Class Travis King, circled, is pictured during the tour moments before his dash across the border into North Korea. His hat was purchased from a gift shop at the demilitarized zone
Travis King crossed into North Korea shortly after being released from prison in South Korea
North Korea has still not produced the 23-year-old Private 2nd Class or acknowledged his arrest
He had served two months in prison for assault before his release in July and had been escorted to an airport by US Army officials to return home for military disciplinary proceedings. But after they left him at airport security, King left the terminal and went on to the tour.
The U.S. military was scrambling to establish the fate of King, whose actions have thrown Washington into a new crisis in its dealing with the nuclear-armed state. US officials said on Tuesday that King crossed ‘willfully and without authorization’.
His motive for his high-stakes gambit remains unclear.
The tourist who witnessed King’s crossing and took the photo of the soldier, Sarah Leslie from New Zealand, said she initially believed it was a stunt ‘for TikTok’.
Leslie and her father, tourists from New Zealand, were part of a group that left Tuesday morning from Seoul to visit the Demilitarized Zone that divides South and North Korea.
King was among the group of 43 tourists, although he was casually dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt and she had no idea at the time that he was a soldier, or in legal trouble.
Leslie said her tour group went a step further than many by visiting the Joint Security Area in the village of Panmunjom, allowing tourists to effectively step on North Korean soil inside one of the buildings, which are jointly held.
To get on such a tour, she said, required submitting their passports and getting permits in advance.
The group left Seoul by bus in the early morning, and Leslie noticed that King was traveling alone and didn’t seem to talk to others on the tour. At one point, she said, he bought a DMZ hat from a gift shop.
The tour was nearing its end Tuesday afternoon — the group had just walked out of the building and were milling about taking photos — when she saw King running ‘really fast’.
‘I assumed initially he had a mate filming him in some kind of really stupid prank or stunt, like a TikTok, the most stupid thing you could do,’ Leslie said. ‘But then I heard one of the soldiers shout, ‘Get that guy.”
Leslie said the command was shouted by an American soldier, one of a group that patrols the area along with South Korean troops.
A tourist who witnessed King’s stunt, Sarah Leslie from New Zealand, said she initially believed it was a stunt ‘for TikTok’
Former President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on June 30, 2019 – the spot where King made his crossing
King crossed the border at Panmunjom, during a tour of the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone
But the soldiers didn’t have time to respond. She said that after running about 10 meters (30 feet) down a narrow passageway between the distinctive blue buildings, King was over the border and then disappeared from sight. It was all over in a few seconds.
Leslie said she didn’t see any people on the North Korean side. The tour group had been told earlier the North Koreans there had been lying low since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After King ran, she said, the soldiers hustled all the tourists into a building and then took them to an information center to give statements. She said many of the tourists, including her father, hadn’t seen King run but a soldier explained the events to them.
‘People couldn’t really quite believe what had happened,’ Leslie said.
‘Quite a few were really shocked. Once we got on the bus and got out of there we were all kind of staring at each other.’
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said last night she was ‘so proud’ of her son and added: ‘I just want him to come home, come back to America.’
Gates, from Racine, Wisconsin, said: ‘I can’t see Travis doing anything like that.’
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, just wants her son to return to their Wisconsin home (pictured)
At a Pentagon press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the U.S. service member was likely now in North Korean custody
The border between North Korea and South Korea is heavily guarded
Court records reveal King pleaded guilty to assault and destruction of public goods stemming from an October incident, and on February 8 the Seoul Western District Court fined him 5 million won ($4,000), according to a copy of the ruling reviewed by Reuters.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the soldier had been due to face disciplinary action by the U.S. military. It’s not clear whether the disciplinary action was linked to his conviction over damaging the police vehicle.
The Seoul court said on September 25 last year King punched a man in the face at a club several times but the case was settled.
Two weeks later, on October 8, police officers responded to a report of another altercation involving King, and tried to question him. He continued with his ‘aggressive behavior’ without answering questions from police, according to the court document.
Police placed him in the backseat of their patrol car where he shouted expletives and insults against Koreans, the Korean army, and the Korean police, the ruling said.
During his tirade, he kicked the vehicle’s door several times, causing about 584,000 won ($461) in damages, the ruling said.
The court said the defendant had admitted to the charges, had no previous criminal record, and paid 1 million won ($790) to fix the vehicle, citing reasons in favor of him in the sentencing.