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PFC Joseph White's walk in the dark: The defection of an American soldier to North Korea [Part 2]

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02.12.2019
PFC Joseph White in North Korea. Courtesy of Jacco Zwetsloot's Collection
By Robert Neff

Joseph White was from St. Louis, Missouri, and lived in a middle-class neighborhood of two-story, well-kept brick bungalows with his parents and four siblings.

An examination of his early childhood portrays him as idealistic and extremely patriotic. At the age of 13 he wrote to his senator warning him of the communist threat that he felt America was facing. He ensured the family's American flag was flown on all national holidays and was "folded just right" at sunset. He was also a volunteer with the Reagan's presidential campaign.

But his personality was complicated and filled with contradictions and the inability to fit in or be satisfied with himself. He was described as a nice enough boy, who was never in trouble at school or in public. Academically he was an average student, a devout Roman Catholic, and while in high school he volunteered as a counselor for handicapped children and was active in the Boy Scouts.

He was fascinated with the military and after high school applied to West Point, but was turned down. So he enrolled in Missouri's Kemper Military School and College where he maintained a B average. However, due to his lack of athletic ability and his shyness, he kept pretty much to himself and was regarded as a loner. Unable to fit in, he dropped out of school ― convincing himself that it was full of "losers" ― and enrolled in the military.

Korea posting

PFC White arrived in Korea in March 1982 and was assigned to Camp Howze, just south of the DMZ. He looked down on many of his fellow soldiers, whom he felt had no knowledge of Korea, save for what they learned from "MASH" or learned in the small villages surrounding the military camps that catered to the needs of the soldiers.

Soldiers in forward units spent most of their time on base, but when they were granted passes to go to the nearby "ville," many over-indulged in alcohol and spent their time and money on women working in the bars.

He, on the other hand, read as much as he could on Korea and began learning the language. He became sympathetic to the Korean people and perhaps a little arrogant in thinking that only he could see past the American stereotypes and realize that the Koreans were happy in their small, crowded hovels, leading their simple lives. And in a way he yearned for this life. His mother would later wonder how he could give up his life in the United States "for one........

© The Korea Times