(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks from White House spokesperson in last 5 paras; ADDS photo)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, July 18 (Yonhap) -- An active U.S. service member has willfully crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea without authorization, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Tuesday.
The soldier is believed to be in North Korean custody and his safety and wellbeing is still under investigation, according to Austin.
"We are very early in this event, and so there's a lot that we are still trying to learn but what we do know is that one of our service members who was on a tour willfully and without authorization crossed the military demarcation line," the defense secretary told a press briefing.
"We believe that he is in DPRK custody, and so we are closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier's next of kin and engaging to address this incident," he added, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea earlier said that a U.S. citizen crossed the military demarcation line while on a group tour to the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone, adding that the UNC is working with North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident.
The U.S. Department of Defense has also reached out to North Korea, according to a state department spokesperson.
"The state department has not reached out to the North Koreans or other governments. It is our understanding that the Pentagon has reached out to their counterparts in the DPRK," State Department Press Secretary Matthew Miller told a daily press briefing.
"I will just say that, as always, the safety and security of any American overseas remains the top priority for the United States," he added.
Miller reiterated that the U.S. service member has "willfully, on his own volition" crossed the inter-Korean border when asked if he was trying to defect to North Korea, adding "the matter remains under investigation."
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre later said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident.
"I can tell you for sure that ... clearly the president has been briefed. Obviously, this is the type of incident that he would be briefed on," she told a press briefing, adding, "certainly this is something that the president is watching very closely and will be kept updated."
Jean-Pierre said it was still too early to determine the exact motive of the U.S. service member.
"We will resolve this incident, resolve this matter to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. There is an investigation that's currently occurring. There has been outreach from the Department of Defense, as I mentioned, to their counterparts over at the Korean People's Army," she told the press briefing.
"Resolving this is basically getting to the bottom of exactly what happened, and that is important for us to know. I just don't have more to share," she added.
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