US soldier Travis King was “breaking down” over a family tragedy before he defected to North Korea while awaiting disciplinary action, according to a relative.

Mr King’s uncle Carl Gates said the soldier began struggling as Mr Gates’ son, King’Nazir, grappled with SPTLC 2, a genetic condition so rare that it does not have an official name.

“When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away … Travis started [being] reckless [and] crazy when he knew my son was about to die,” Mr Gates told news website the Daily Beast of Mr King, 23.

Mr Gates’ son was only 6 years old when he died in February from complications of SPTLC 2.

Mr King, a private 2nd class, was in South Korea when King’Nazir took a turn for the worse, Gates explained to the Daily Beast.

“His mum came down on a few occasions, and she then talked to him and let him know what was going on with my son. And it seemed like he was breaking down. It affected Travis a lot,” he recalled.

“Because he couldn’t be here. He was in the Army, overseas.

“I know it’s related to what he did.”

Mr King, of Racine, Wisconsin, 50km south of Milwaukee, was scheduled to fly back to the Fort Bliss army post, in El Paso, Texas, with a military escort before he slipped his handlers, reported the New York Post.

He was spotted wearing civilian clothes at a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) — the border village in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas that is guarded by soldiers from both sides.

Tour groups are common at the JSA from South Korea although participants identities are supposed to be heavily vetted beforehand.

Mr King previously spent almost two months at a South Korean detention centre, US officials said.

He was escorted as far as the customs checkpoint at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport before he left the airport alone, the Daily Beast reported.

“It took everybody a second to react and grasp what had actually happened, then we were ordered into and through Freedom House (a South Korean administrative building in the JSA) and running back to our military bus,” a Swedish visitor who was on Mr King’s tour wrote of the moment he purportedly ran across the border while loudly cackling “ha-ha-ha”.

“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realised it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” another witness said.

Prior to his defection, King had also faced two assault allegations and been fined approximately $US3950 ($A5838) for damaging a South Korean police vehicle last October.

The Wisconsin native is now believed to be in custody in North Korea, the UN Command said.

“[We] are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident,” they continued, referring to North Korea’s Korean People’s Army.

Mr Gates told the Daily Beast that he was one of the last people to communicate with Mr King before the defection.

He added that his nephew “loved and cherished” his late son, and that he was plagued by concerns for his family in the wake of the young boy’s passing.

“Picture yourself being in the Army and your baby cousin from your favourite, my only child, he’s struggling and going through pain. And he’s crying like a baby, and now you’re in the service and you can’t do nothing about it. And then you’re crying like a baby,” Mr Gates said.

“The pain came from my son, and it escalated to this s***.”

Mr King’s mother, Claudine Gates, previously told ABC that she just wants her son “to come home”.

“We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier’s next-of-kin and engaging to address this incident,” US defence secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Tuesday.

This story appeared in the New York Post and is reproduced with permission.

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