What Happened to Joseph White?

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

What Happened to Joseph White?

A U.S. Army captain confers with Republic of Korea soldiers at Guard Post Ouellette in April 2008.

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.

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