What Happened to Joseph White?

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

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.

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