What Happened to Joseph White?

The story of the last American soldier to defect to North Korea.

The early morning hours of August 28, 1982, were characterized by the usual mixture of boredom and tension along the boundaries of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the no man’s land separating North and South Korea. Twenty-year-old Private First Class (PFC) Joseph T. White peered into the darkness as the North Korean soldiers across the DMZ looked back. White was on duty at Guard Post Ouellette, but his mind was elsewhere. He complained to his squad leader, Sgt. Howard Todd, about being denied the opportunity to visit his South Korean girlfriend, who happened to be in the hospital. Sgt. Todd advised White to keep cool, that he might receive a pass in a week. Sgt. Todd left his position soon afterwards and so did White, ostensibly to get a blanket. 

A few minutes later, PFC David Chapman, White’s roommate, saw someone signaling with a red-lensed flashlight near a locked gate. Chapman screamed out a challenge and White identified himself. “White, what are you doing down there?” Chapman yelled. A shot rang out and Chapman reacted by diving into nearby sandbags. “What the hell are you doing down there?” Chapman repeated. White replied that his M16 accidentally discharged. Chapman stood up and ran towards the gate—first hearing and then seeing White running down the hill towards North Korea.

“I am coming. Help me. Help me, North Korea,” White shouted in elementary Korean. A guard hit the post’s alert button, and the stunned squad looked on as White carefully picked his way across the heavily mined DMZ. The unit’s chaplain, a Catholic priest, shouted at White, pleading with him to return. Shortly after dawn the chaplain watched helplessly as six or eight North Korean soldiers grabbed White and manhandled him into a bunker and out of sight.

American authorities demanded to interview White but the North Koreans refused. The army searched White’s possessions and found an Instamatic camera with undeveloped pictures of American defenses, radar tech manuals, copies of low level codes, Korean language lesson books, military and civilian clothing, and a large collection of North Korean propaganda leaflets.

In early September the North Koreans released a videotape of White reading a statement. “Nobody instigated me to come over to North Korea. I sought political refuge not by passing emotion, but by a deep conviction. While working in the Demilitarized Zone I came to know that there is a way leading to a truly wonderful life. I cast my eye on North Korea.” In stilted, unnatural English, White attacked what he called the “corruptness, criminality, immorality, weakness and hedonism” of America.

The words struck hard in White’s middle class neighborhood in south St. Louis, an expanse of small, immaculate houses—the homes of brewery and auto factory workers. White’s parents, Norval and Kathleen, maintained that their son had been captured. They clung to every piece of evidence supporting their belief, including reports that Joseph’s arms were pinned behind his back as he was led into the bunker, and that their “nearly blind” son was not wearing his glasses when he picked his way across the DMZ.

His mother did not stop crying for two days before taking up the fight for Joseph. “I’d rather cook, clean the house and play with the grandchildren than be the center of attention, but I have to fight to save my son,” she pronounced. The Whites did their best to cope with the glare of the media spotlight, inviting journalists into their home and leaving aluminum lawn chairs in the front yard for camera crews. They displayed photos of Joseph in uniform; hanging from a crucifix was a scroll with the soldier’s creed that their son had sent from Korea.

Kathleen could not believe that her son had defected. “He was a very patriotic, conservative young man. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t smoke pot. He often said young people were too soft. He was a conservative—a Reagan[ite]. The things Reagan was saying were exactly the words in his own mind.”

But Joseph was different from the beginning. None of his four brothers and sisters showed an interest in politics, but Joseph volunteered for the Reagan campaign even before he could vote. He was shy, with no enemies but few close friends. He read military history voraciously, spending hours alone with his books. He attended parochial schools and was a devout Catholic. He was also a Boy Scout and volunteered at a muscular dystrophy camp.

In 1979 he attended a YMCA model legislature and introduced a ‘bill’ requiring 11 months of reserve military service for all 18-year-old males. (In his model state, the governor would have the power to hire out the state militia to private businesses and individuals.) The following year he introduced another bill in the model legislature that called for Missouri to withdraw from the union because of a long list of grievances dating back to the Civil War, and for a list of “present abuses and injustices” of the federal government, including the charge that the “U.S. government is no longer supreme in the world, leaving it vulnerable to enemies.”

An indifferent student and a worse athlete, White was rejected by West Point. He intended to go directly into the Army but was persuaded by his parents to attend now-defunct Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri. The commandant remembered him as an introvert. “He wasn’t outgoing but if you talked to him you could have an intelligent conversation.” Ultimately, he told his parents he would rather be a “dog soldier” than an officer and dropped out of Kemper to go on active duty.

Stationed in South Korea, White explored the local villages and began to learn the Korean language. He liked the food and sent packages of it back to St. Louis. He particularly liked the local women. “The women over here are beautifully alluring,” White wrote a friend. “It’s true the K[orean] women are generally small breasted but after Korea I’ll probably never like big breasted women…. The biggest problem is communication since frequently their English leaves something to be desired.”

In the same letter White recounted how he “almost got killed twice” on patrol. He wrote that his squad encountered a North Korean soldier signaling with a flashlight, apparently attempting to infiltrate South Korean lines. The enemy soldier fled without firing but White was frightened. “If he had chosen to fight, I would have been shot before I could have fired. By the time we reacted he had vanished."

But for the most part White was bored, complaining about the lack of entertainment and being limited to two beers a day while on leave. He had a Korean girlfriend—a rare relationship for him. He spoke of defections from the North to the South but gave little or no indication that he might defect himself.

By mid-September the Army closed its investigation and concluded that White had defected of his own free will. His parents painfully accepted this conclusion. In January 1983, leaflets in White’s handwriting began appearing along the DMZ. “Dear old fellow friends,” White wrote. “I have been leading a contented life under the warm care of the DPRK [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea]. I have become fond of life in the capital, seeing the sights, and visiting the institutions of culture. My seeking asylum is very right conduct.”

The best the Army could come up with as an official explanation for White’s defection was his resentment at not being allowed to visit his girlfriend, a rationale absurd on its face since White knew he would never see her again if he crossed the DMZ. Fellow soldiers speculated that White simply went crazy.

A better explanation might be found in White’s personality. All of his life he had sought the comfort of authority and indicated his desire to subjugate his will to a higher purpose. The North Korea he entered was not unlike the state militia and right wing state he had advocated for Missouri. His devotion to the Catholic Church was amplified to the nth degree in the state worship of the so-called Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Like many extremists, White had little trouble switching the form his belief took, as long as it fulfilled his need to be controlled by a higher purpose. Like Lee Harvey Oswald before him and Timothy McVeigh after, White found a way station in the military before giving himself over to an even more authoritarian culture.

White’s parents were shocked when in February 1983 they received a letter from their son. He claimed he was happy and working as an English tutor. He asked for a dictionary and an almanac but said nothing about his defection. It was the only word the Whites ever received from him.

Finally, on November 5, 1985, on what would have been their son’s 24th birthday, the Whites received another letter from North Korea. The writer claimed that Joseph drowned in the Chongchon River during an outing with friends. The letter alleged that one of his new friends heroically tried to save him but both drowned and their bodies were never recovered.

It may be true, but it probably isn’t. Perhaps White found happiness in the rigid discipline and mandated worship of Kim Il-sung, at least for a time. Perhaps he happily began his days with supervised calisthenics, proudly wearing the portrait of the Great Leader on his shirt, spending an hour midday attending lectures, then after work attending several more hours of indoctrination before returning to a cinder block apartment decorated with pictures of the self-styled God. Or maybe he soon realized his decision was a mistake, and the North Koreans simply disposed of him after prodding him for information. Whatever happened to White is known only to the most repressive regime on the planet, and the truth may never be known to the outside world.

Greg Bailey is the St. Louis correspondent for The Economist, a freelance writer and a reconsidering attorney.