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3 Joseph White's walk in the
dark By Robert Neff
August 28, 1982, at about 2am, the sound of a
single gunshot shattered the silence of the
Panmunjom region of Korea's Demilitarized Zone.
Gunfire along the DMZ was not uncommon, and while
it was alarming, none could have imagined that it
signified the unthinkable defection of an American
soldier to North Korea. It was the sixth, and to
date the last, defection to the North by an
American soldier since the end of the Korean War.
The incident occurred at Guard Post
Ouellette, one of the most
forward US positions at that
time in South Korea. Private Joseph T White, a
member of 1/31st Infantry (nicknamed the Wild
Bunch), was alone at his post when he shot off the
lock of one of the gates leading into the
4-kilometer-wide DMZ, and made his way into one of
the, if not the, most heavily fortified and mined
zones in the world.
White was equipped
with an M16 rifle with an attached grenade
launcher, ammunition, night-vision goggles,
operating instructions for radio equipment, and
some unclassified information on radar and sensor
systems, but all of these were left behind except
his weapon and ammo. White's sojourn through the
DMZ was necessarily slow and deliberate as he
skirted minefields and other obstacles. As he
neared the North Korean positions, he could be
heard yelling in clumsy Korean, "I am coming," and
calling for help; not from his fellow Americans,
but from the North Koreans.
American soldiers who witnessed his defection
could not believe what they were seeing, for, as
White knew, "when you cross that line, you're gone
forever". At least one soldier apparently asked
permission to shoot him before he reached the
North Korean side, but that request was denied.
They watched in the early morning light as
a squad of North Korean soldiers seemingly
manhandled him (some soldiers described it as a
beating) and led him into a bunker. The United
Nations Command (UNC) later described the incident
as 10 North Koreans "apprehending an [unnamed]
the fact that later that day the North Korean
government exuberantly announced that Private
White was in its "warm protection" after having
crossed the border on his volition seeking
political asylum, White's family and the US
government had their doubts.
parents were devastated by the news and vehemently
denied his defection. On the day of the defection,
White's father, Norval, described the news of his
son's disappearance as a "terrible tragedy" that
he could not understand.
"It's like he was
killed in action," the grief-stricken father told
a reporter during a brief telephone interview.
In an interview on August 31, the
soldier's sobbing mother, Kathleen, insisted that
she felt no shame because her son was a
"prisoner", and that he would never have defected
because "Joey is nothing but gung-ho army, a
gung-ho patriot, and gung-ho Reagan".
desperation she wrote letters to president Ronald
Reagan and former president Richard Nixon begging
them for assistance in getting her son returned
from North Korea. In the letter she wrote to
Reagan she expounded on her son's loyalty not only
to him as president but also to the United States.
"This is a boy the country needs," she asserted,
and further insisted that her son was a prisoner.
She warned that if the North Koreans could
"capture one, they can do it to a hundred, and
soon they'll be on the west coast" of the United
States. She suggested to Reagan that the US forces
in Korea "collect some North Koreans and trade
them" for her son.
Despite the witness
accounts of fellow American soldiers, there was
some doubt in the US government. One soldier
remembers that on the morning White defected, his
unit commander assembled the unit together and
told them that they were "going to get their boy"
On August 30, the UNC's senior
representative, Rear Admiral James G Storm,
requested a face-to-face meeting with White to
verify the circumstances of his defection, but his
request was denied by the North Korean
representative, Han Ju-kyung, who insisted that it
was a well-known fact that he had defected. The
UNC continued to demand an audience with White to
verify his status, and the North Koreans continued
to refuse, thus provoking US officials to proclaim
North Korea "unreasonable and inhumane".
The evidence Despite White's
parents' insistence that he had not defected,
evidence, including the witness accounts, began to
An inspection of his
personal effects in the barracks "uncovered a
large number of North Korean propaganda leaflets
and newspaper articles about life in North Korea",
the New York Times reported a US military
spokesman as saying. This in itself was nothing
more than circumstantial evidence. White, like
many young soldiers, collected North Korean
propaganda leaflets (despite the fact that it was
illegal), which could be found in the mountains
throughout Korea, and even in the streets of
Seoul. White had even written to his parents with
"boyish exuberance" of his intentions to collect
these "odd testimonials to the joys of life under
the communist regime".
Perhaps the most
damning evidence was the North Korean video that
was released shortly after his defection. In a
tape made at Pyongyang Cultural People's Palace,
White criticized the US government and its
policies while praising North Korea and its
supreme leader Kim Il-sung. He claimed he had not
defected on a whim, but had done so with great
thought and emotion to "show the world the
corruptness, criminality, immorality, weakness,
and hedonism of the US", and to demonstrate how
"unjustifiable [it was] for the US to send troops
to South Korea".
As a soldier I watched
that video, or a similar one, and remember