What Happened to Joseph White?

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

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