A New Zealand tourist visiting the DMZ between North and South Korea thought it was a trick when she saw a suspected member of her tour group running north.
It quickly became apparent that the incident was not a prank, but rather a daring escape by an American soldier who had fled from a Seoul airport and somehow joined the tour group while facing possible disciplinary action back home.
Sarah Leslie told the AP that Travis King, 23, was out of uniform, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and had no idea he was a soldier or in legal danger.
King, 23, spent about two months in a South Korean prison for assault before being released on July 10 and was scheduled to return to Fort Bliss in Texas on Monday, where he may have been released and possibly be subjected to greater military discipline.
Ms Leslie told the news agency that her group went further than other tours when they visited the Joint Security Area in the town of Panmunjom, meaning the tourists were basically stepping on North Korean soil in one of the controlled buildings. jointly by both. nations
He added that to be part of such a tour, they had to present their passports and obtain permits in advance.
The group left Seoul early in the morning, and Ms. Leslie noted that Mr. King was traveling alone and seemed unwilling to talk to other people taking the tour. She also noticed that he bought a DMZ hat at a gift shop.
The tour was coming to a close on Tuesday afternoon, the group had just left the building and were hanging around taking photos, when he saw King running “very fast.”
“Initially I assumed that he had a partner filming him in some kind of really stupid prank or trick, like a TikTok, the stupidest thing you could do,” Leslie said. “But then I heard one of the soldiers yell, ‘Get that guy.'”
She said the order came from a US soldier, part of a group of troops patrolling the area along with South Korean service members.
But the soldiers did not have time to respond. She said that after running about 10 meters (30 feet) down a narrow corridor between the distinctive blue buildings, Mr. King crossed the border and then disappeared from sight. It was all over in a few seconds.
Ms Leslie said she couldn’t see anyone on the north side: the group had previously been told the North Koreans had been in hiding since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic.
After King ran, he said, the soldiers pushed all the tourists into a building and then took them to an information center to give statements. He said that many of the tourists, including his father, had not seen Mr. King run, but a soldier explained the facts to them.
“People really couldn’t believe what had happened,” Leslie said. “Many were really shocked. Once we got on the bus and got out of there, we were all looking at each other.”
Leslie, a lawyer from New Zealand’s capital Wellington, said she had long been interested in the Koreas after studying politics at university and watching South Korean movies.
He said he found it difficult to understand why King would go to North Korea.
“I just didn’t think anybody wanted to do that,” he said.
Associated Press contributed to this report