November 1982
Reporting: David Friend

At first the puzzled U.S. Army simply called him AWOL. Facts were scarce. Around two a.m., August 28, Pfc. Joseph White, 20, walked away from Guard Post Oullette on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone, shot off the lock of a gate and disappeared into no-man's-land. Within the day, North Korean broadcasts were exulting that an American soldier had "requested political asylum." If true, it was the first U.S. defection to North Korea in 17 years, the fifth since the DMZ was established in 1953 dividing South Korea from the Communist North. The previous GIs were used briefly for propaganda and were never heard from again. Back in Joseph White's hometown of St. Louis, his father, Norval, 52, a painter on a General Motors assembly line, insisted that his son had been captured. His wife, Kathleen, said through her tears, "It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Joey want to leave his ice cream, his chocolate syrup, his money?" But by the end of the week, a videotape of the young soldier shattered his family's hopes. Speaking in the Pyongyang People's Cultural Palace, Pfc. White, still in uniform, condemned U.S. militarism and then led a chant in homage to North Korean dictator Kim Ilsung. Joe White was a strange defector to Communism. He had been the arch-conservative in a family of blue-collar Democrats, a cold warrior who, at 13, wrote to his senator to warn of the Communist menace. Turned down by West Point, Joe enrolled in Missouri's Kemper Military School and College, where he was regarded as a loner. A fair student but a poor athlete, he dropped out and enlisted in the Army after deciding Kemper was full of "losers." In letters home from Korea, samples of which appear on the following pages, White gave no hint that his political ideas were shifting. If anything, he seemed only more fanatical. "It was drummed into him," Norval White recalls, " Hey, buddy. When you cross that line, you're gone forever."

Pfc. Joe White's duty with the last 39,000 U.S. troops on the Asian mainland began last March after three months of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. For a rigid anti-Communist deployment to the Cold War's iciest face-off was a dream come true, though reality sometimes got in the way. In his letters White commented regularly (and with something like personal shame) on the all too human shortcomings of the GIs in South Korea, the examples of poor discipline, the equipment failures. The Koreans themselves, he liked. 'The American stereotype would seem to say that these people must be unhappy," he wrote after describing overcrowded hovels. "But their smiles suggest contentment." From the big Army base at Howze in the southwest, White was rotated north near the DMZ in July--first to Warrior Base, then to Oullette. The DMZ Installations are the only permanent bases in the world where U.S. troops go out nightly on ambush patrol with live ammo and orders to kill on sight. White complained about privations of border life--the mosquitoes, the scarcity of showers--but not the psychological pressure. Other soldiers turned to drugs. White was a straight arrow whose worst vice was an occasional beer. Those who knew him say he did not wander into the DMZ stoned. To them, that seems as preposterous as the fact that he went at all. Border duty is grim and edgy, made no less weird by the propaganda (including sexual as well as political taunts) that both sides blast across no-man's-land by loudspeaker. The war of ideas is also conducted by leaflet, and in one letter home White mentioned with boyish exuberance that he planned to start collecting these odd testimonials to the joys of life under the Communist regime to the north.

North Koreans peer across the DMZ from a typical guard post.


I almost got killed twice two patrols ago. First our route took us right past one of our own ambush sites. A firefight would have been all too easy. The second time we got misoriented in the dark. (In the Army you don't get lost, you get misoriented.)

Camouflage paint daubed on their faces a patrol lines up at Warrior Base, the rough tent city on the DMZ where White was quartered until three weeks prior to his defection.

Sgt. James Kirk does duty at Guard Post Oullette. The gate that White blasted open is visible at rear


The loudspeakers broadcast propaganda all night long. It is eerie to lie in ambush with 196 rounds of live ammo in your magazine pouches and listen to the voice of a Communist woman which is quivering with hate--hate for the U.S. and for South Korea.


South Koreans occupy an enemy tunnel under the DMZ. Below, allied officers overlook Chor Won Valley, likeliest route of mechanized attack from the north.

None of Pfc. White's ideas about Communism prepared him for the aggressiveness of the North Korean border troops--the propaganda, hair-trigger rifle fire and their relentless tunneling beneath the DMZ. A tape cassette that White mailed home in May refers to another revelation: the prevalence of defection. Speaking in a haunted voice he himself likens to that of Marlon Brando as the lunatic Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, White mentions defection six times in a 20-minute monologue: "In South Korean newspapers you read all the time of North Koreans who defect south," he comments. "But it's not all one-way traffic."


Tension here is very real. Four North Koreans tried to defect, so the enemy fired at us for hours. Before anybody knew it, that could have been the start of another Korean war.

Joe White scorned fellow soldiers whose curiosity about Korea extended no further than watching M*A*S*H. He began to read up on both Koreas, marking references to Kim Il-Sung. (According to a former girlfriend, White had been previously obsessed by Hitler.) He even tried to learn Hongul, the Korean tongue. "Much more precise than English," he told his parents...His incentive was not strictly academic. White had become fascinated by Korean women. After being sent up to the DMZ, he complained about the lack of female companionship--except for those teasing voices over the loudspeakers and the lovelies pictured on propaganda leaflets. In bolting to the North, maybe White thought he would find a life regimented beyond his most anxious yearnings for order and discipline. Maybe he thought he would find the "perfect man's mate." Maybe he has. There's something more pathetic than treacherous in the last words American buddies heard from him. "I am coming," he cried out as he ran across the DMZ. "Help me." He did not say it in English. Joe White was trying out the Hongul dialect he had worked so hard to learn.

Off-duty DMZ troops at Panmunjon tune in a M*A*S*H episode.

At an entertainment staged for US troops in Chunchon last March, Korean show girls await their cue.


Korean women are perfect man's mates. I'm friends with several who are much more beautiful than any girlfriend I had in the States and that's for damn sure. Besides attractive, they're hard working, they live simply. They know how to treat their man.