By Josh Smith and Phil Stewart

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military was scrambling to establish the fate of an American soldier who made an unauthorised crossing of the inter-Korean border into North Korea, throwing Washington into a new crisis in its dealing with the nuclear-armed state.

The U.S. Army identified the soldier as Private Travis T. King who joined up in 2021 and was facing disciplinary action. While on a orientation tour of Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between the two Koreas, King crossed into North Korea on Tuesday “wilfully and without authorization,” U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

“We believe that he is in (North Korean) custody and so we’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin,” Austin told a briefing.

North Korea’s state media have made no mention of the incident. Its mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The crossing comes at a time of renewed tension on the Korean peninsula, with the arrival of a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine, and the launch early on Wednesday morning of two ballistic missiles into the sea by North Korea.

North Korea has been testing increasingly powerful missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, including a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile launched last week.

NORTH KOREA FIRES MISSILES

The soldier was on a tour of the Panmunjom truce village in the JSA with a group of visitors when he crossed the line marking the Military Demarcation Line border, U.S. officials say. The heavily armed border has separated the two Koreas since fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armistice.

Colonel Isaac Taylor, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea, said the military was “working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” referring to North Korea’s People’s Army.

U.S. officials were stumped why the soldier fled to the North and outlined a puzzling series of events.

King had finished serving time in detention in South Korea for an unspecified infraction and was transported by the U.S. military to the airport to return to his home unit in the United States, two U.S. officials said.

He had already passed alone through security to his gate and then, for whatever reason, decided to flee, one official said. Civilian tours of the demilitarized zone are advertised at the airport and King appeared to have decided to join one, the official added.

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. But he was not in custody at the time he decided to flee, one of them said.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles ties with the North, said all tours to Panmunjom have been cancelled indefinitely on the request of the U.N. Command which oversees security for the area.

It was unclear how long North Korean authorities would hold the soldier but analysts said the incident could be valuable propaganda for the isolated country.

“Historically, the North holds these folks for weeks, if not months, for propaganda purposes (especially if this is a U.S. soldier) before a coerced confession and apology,” said Victor Cha, a former U.S. official and Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Before dawn on Wednesday, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles from an area near its capital, Pyongyang, each flying 550 km and 600 km before plunging into the sea off its east coast.

The launch comes hours after the South Korea and the United States held the first round of talks on Tuesday on upgrading coordination in the event of a nuclear war with North Korea.

The United States has pledged to deploy more strategic assets such as aircraft carriers, submarines and long-range bombers to South Korea, drawing an angry response from Pyongyang which vowed to escalate its own military response.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul, David Brunnstrom, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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