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     Feb 23, 2007
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Joseph White's walk in the dark
By Robert Neff

On 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.

The few 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] individual".

Despite 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.

White's 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".

In 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" back.

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 indicate otherwise.

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

Continued 1 2

The strange saga of Charles Robert Jenkins (Jun 5, '04)


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