The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Travis King not first US soldier to cross border

What became of some past US soldiers, civilians who went to North Korea

By Kim Arin

Published : July 19, 2023 - 17:59

    • Link copied

Korean border village of Panmunjom (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Korean border village of Panmunjom (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

A US soldier is believed to be in North Korean custody after crossing the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea while on a tour of the border village of Panmunjom, the United Nations Command said Tuesday.

The soldier has since been identified as Travis King, a private in his early 20s who had just been released from a South Korean prison after serving about two months on assault charges.

But long before King there was Charles Jenkins, who was accused of leaving his post with the US Army in 1965 to flee to North Korea. Jenkins reportedly crossed the DMZ in a state of inebriation. After being held in the North for close to 40 years, he was allowed to leave to Japan in 2004 to reunite with his wife, a Japanese woman who had been released from abduction by North Korea two years prior in 2002. The couple met in Pyongyang and had two daughters together, born there, who were able to join their parents in Japan. The family’s arrival in Japan was arranged by the Japanese government. He died aged 77 in Japan in 2017, according to Kyodo News Agency.

James Dresnok was the last known US soldier remaining in North Korea, until his death there in 2016 at age 74, according to online North Korean state media outlet Uriminzokkiri. Dresnok was facing a potential court-martial and other troubles in his personal life, he told makers of the 2006 documentary “Crossing the Line,” when he fled across the DMZ in 1962. He was one of very few US soldiers to go to North Korea after the Korean War.

Dresnok was deployed for propaganda purposes, appearing in films praising the isolated country and sometimes playing an American villain. He married a Romanian woman, who was barred from leaving North Korea after having been tricked into traveling to North Korea, and left behind two sons, both born in North Korea.

US civilians have also been taken prisoner in North Korea in past years.

Otto Warmbier, a US college student, died in 2017 shortly after he was evacuated out of North Korea. He was flown home in a vegetative state, which North Korea claimed was due to botulism and a sleeping pill. The US coroner’s office upon examination found no evidence to support North Korea’s explanation.

Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea as a part of a tour group, was seized by North Korean authorities for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and spent 17 months in North Korean captivity before he was brought back to the US, where he died. He was 22.

Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae were freed in 2014 after being kept by North Korea for about seven months and two years, respectively. Their release was secured by then-director of US intelligence James Clapper. Miller, who at the time was 24, arrived in Pyongyang on a tourist visa and then was charged with trying to spy on the country. Bae, a Korean American, was sentenced to hard labor for “hostile acts,” which supposedly included missionary work.