POLITICS

Tourist who saw US soldier sprint to North Korea initially thought it was a stunt

Jul 19, 2023, 4:10 AM

A group of tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, Sou...

A group of tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. Not long after this photo was taken, Travis King, a U.S. soldier, bolted across the border and became the first known American detained in the North in nearly five years. (AP Photo/Sarah Jane Leslie)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Sarah Jane Leslie)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Sarah Leslie thought she was witnessing a stunt when she saw an American soldier start sprinting toward North Korea.

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.

Private 2nd Class Travis King was among the group of 43 tourists, Leslie told The Associated Press, although he was casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and she had no idea at the time that he was a soldier, or in legal trouble.

King, 23, was a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division who had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault. He was released on July 10 and was supposed to travel home Monday to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge from the service.

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.

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.”

Leslie, a lawyer from New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, said she’d long had an interest in the Koreas after studying politics at university and seeing South Korean movies.

She said she found it hard to understand why King would head to North Korea.

“I just didn’t think anyone would ever want to do that,” she said.

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Tourist who saw US soldier sprint to North Korea initially thought it was a stunt