A tourist who saw a plainclothes American soldier sprint across the South Korean border into North Korea initially thought it was a stunt.
New Zealander Sarah Leslie and her father were part of a tour group that departed from Seoul Tuesday morning to visit the Military Demarcation Line separating the two countries. In an interview with The Associated Press, Leslie gave her eyewitness account of Pvt. Travis King leaving the other 43 tourists behind and running straight into North Korean territory, where he is currently detained.
Leslie said she had no idea at the time that King, who was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, was a soldier, or that he was facing disciplinary action back home in the U.S.
A senior defense official told Fox News that King had just finished about two months in a South Korean detention facility following a physical altercation with locals. After King was arrested and throughout the time he was held at the facility, he made comments that he did not want to come back to America, according to the official.
This undated photo shows Travis King, the American soldier who officials say currently is being detained in North Korea. (Facebook)
Leslie told The Associated Press 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 tourists left Seoul by bus early Tuesday morning, and Leslie said she noticed that King was keeping to himself and didn’t seem to talk with anyone else on the tour. At one point, she recounted, he purchased a DMZ hat from a gift shop.
But King was too fast for them. She said he charged about 30 feet down a narrow passageway between two blue buildings at the DMZ and disappeared before anyone could stop him.
A banner advertising DMZ tour is attached at a tourist bus at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. North Korea has not commented on the American soldier who crossed the DMZ into DPRK custody on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
U.S. officials believe King is now in DPRK custody and are working with North Korean officials to resolve the matter.
Leslie, a lawyer from New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, told The Associated Press she had an interest in the Koreas after studying politics at university and seeing South Korean movies.
She said she did not understand why King would flee to North Korea.