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PFC Joseph White's walk in the dark: The defection of an American soldier to North Korea [Part 1]

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By Robert Neff

A propaganda leaflet of PFC White's defection to North Korea. Robert Neff Collection. On August 28, 1982, at about 2 a.m., the sound of a single gunshot shattered the silence of the Panmunjeom region of Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Gunfire along the DMZ was not uncommon, and while it was alarming, none could have imagined that it signified the unthinkable ― the defection of an American soldier to North Korea.

The incident occurred at Guard Post Oullette, one of the most forward American positions at that time in South Korea. PFC Joseph T. White, a member of the 1st Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, was alone at his post when he shot off the lock of one of the gates leading into the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, and made his way into one of most heavily fortified and mined zones in the world.

White was equipped with an M-16 with an attached grenade launcher, ammo, night-vision goggles, operating instructions for radio equipment and some unclassified information on radar and sensor systems, but all of these were left behind except his weapon and ammo.

White's sojourn through the DMZ was necessarily slow and deliberate as he skirted around mine fields and other obstacles. As he neared the North Korean positions he could be heard yelling in clumsy Korean "I am coming" and calling for help. His plea for assistance was not to his fellow Americans but to the North Koreans.

The few American soldiers who witnessed his defection could not believe what they were seeing, for, as White knew, "When you cross that line, you're gone forever." At least one soldier apparently asked permission to shoot White before the North Koreans reached him, but that request was denied.

They watched in the early morning light as a squad of North Korean soldiers seemingly man-handled him (some soldiers described it as a beating) and led him into a bunker. The United Nations Command (UNC) later described the incident as 10 North Koreans "apprehending an [unnamed] individual."


Despite the fact that later that day, the North Korean government exuberantly announced that PFC White was in their "warm protection" after having crossed the border on his own volition seeking political asylum, White's family and the American government had their doubts.

White's parents were devastated by the news and vehemently denied his defection. White's father Norval described the news of his son's disappearance as a "terrible tragedy" he could not understand.

"It's like he was killed in action," the grief-stricken father told a reporter........

© The Korea Times