Defectors fleeing North Korea are a topic of international concern. They must either pass through the heavily-armed and mined demilitarized zone at the border with South Korea, or make the perilous trek across North Korea’s Tumen River border with China, also heavily patrolled by North Korean troops.
Once in China, North Korean defectors face hard choices. They must cross a massive desert to Mongolia, frozen Siberian emptiness to Russia, or attempt to make their way to South Korea through China, where Chinese police will be searching to send them back to North Korea. If captured, they face certain death, torture, imprisonment or all three.
The stories that come out of North Korea through these defectors should be enough to make anyone wary of the propaganda that comes from the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship, but it doesn’t. Since the end of the Korean War, at least six American soldiers have defected into North Korea.
The Korean War ended in 1953, and the United States has maintained a powerful military presence in South Korea ever since. The six U.S. troops who have crossed the line into the communist north came from the military units stationed there. Four who crossed during the Cold War are arguably the most infamous, having appeared in North Korean propaganda films and in magazines after crossing.
Pvt. Larry Allen Abshier crossed in 1962 and died there in 1983. Pfc. James Joseph Dresnok crossed to avoid being arrested; he also died there. Cpl. Jerry Wayne Parrish came to North Korea across the DMZ in 1963 and spent his life there, dying in 1997. Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins defected in 1965, met his wife who came back to the West in 2002. Jenkins followed her in 2004, dying in 2017.
Another defector, Roy Chung, was born in South Korea and defected from his U.S. Army unit in Germany, choosing to join North Korea’s Korean People’s Army instead, where he served until he died. The last defector, Joseph T. White, crossed the DMZ in 1982, in full view of his American Army unit.
According to Maj. Ed Rouse, who was serving as the intelligence officer at Camp Hovey, South Korea at the time, White was an all-American, filled with patriotism and fascinated by the U.S. military. As a soldier, however, he was constantly in trouble, even going AWOL from Kemper Military College.
Pfc. White was sent to Camp Howze, just south of the DMZ in March 1982. There, he became fascinated with Korean culture, Korean women, and, apparently North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. The trouble began when his unit rotated to Warrior Base at the DMZ, a remote outpost that took a lot of fire from North Korean troops. The monotony of life was as dangerous as the enemy.
The ambush patrols and nightly firefights began to get to him. On August 28, 1982, White suddenly blew the lock off a gate at the Panmunjom region of Korea's Demilitarized Zone with his rifle after being left alone at his post. He then walked into the DMZ. An American guard hit a panic button, and his entire unit watched him walk across the most heavily-mined area on Earth before being captured by North Korean guards.
The Army concluded that he defected of his own free will, but no one saw White again until six months later, when he gave a speech and answered questions for North Korean journalists. His speech criticized South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
White’s parents received their first letter from their son in 1984, a letter that reinforced the belief that he had defected on his own. His next letter was received in November 1985, but instead of an update on his life, it was information on his death. Joseph T. White had apparently drowned while swimming in a river.
After leaving North Korea for Japan, former defector Charles Jenkins said he had seen White’s press conference in 1982, but White was never introduced to the other four Americans. He claimed that someone informed him White had suffered an epileptic seizure and spent the rest of his life paralyzed in North Korea.