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American Defector To North Korea Drowned Last Summer, Letter Says

January 8, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1982 drowned last year while on a “leisure time” outing with three other people, according to a letter sent to the soldier’s parents.

The letter, from a North Korean who described himself as the American’s “best friend,” said Pfc. Joseph T. White died on Aug. 17 when he tried to swim across a rain-swollen river.

The parents, Norval and Kathleen White, could not be reached at their home in St. Louis for immediate comment. A copy of the letter was made available by Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

White disappeared from his post in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on Aug. 28, 1982. The U.S. military command has said the soldier defected to North Korea “for motives that are not known.” He was 20 at the time.

The letter to White’s parents, dated Aug. 22, was sent by Li Gun Ho, who said he was a student “who had been on good terms” with White and had learned English from the soldier during the “past several years.”

The letter said White drowned on the Chongchon River. There were no other details about the location of the accident.

“When he reached the middle of the river he (White) suddenly dipped his body in the water and tossed his head and then began wriggling,” the letter said. “It seemed that he had been caught in a swirl of fast water.”

The Korean said another person, who was part of the group with White, tried to save the American but also drowned. The bodies had not been recovered at the time the letter was written.

White was described in the letter as a “fearless adventurer,” but had been warned it was “dangerous to swim in such a swelled and fast stream.”

The group went to the river at White’s suggestion and “were spending leisure time while drinking red wine...”

The Korean said he had lived with White and recalled “happy days when we had the running and the mountaineering in the morning and strolls in the evening while learning English from him.”

North Korean officials, after White was reported missing from his guard post, said the soldier had sought political refuge in the communist country because of “deep emotion” and he wanted to show the world that the United States was corrupt.

White, a high school graduate, left the Kemper Military Academy in Boonevile, Mo. to join the army in October 1981. He was assigned to the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea in March 1982.

White was the fifth American soldier to defect to North Korean since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean war.

After his defection, military investigators reported that White had been an “average soldier” and his military record was “clean,” with nothing to indicate psychiatric disorders, medical problems, or drug and alcohol abuse.

These officials said that after crossing into North Korea during early morning darkness, White “ignored the repeated efforts by U.S. Army personnel to persuade him to return.”

Don Foley, a spokesman for Gephardt, said the White family recieved the letter in November and has “accepted the fact that their son has died.”

However, Foley said there was “no way of verifying” the statements in the letter.

U.S. government sources, speaking on condition they not be identified, said the North Koreans had returned White’s personal belongings home to the United States and they will be turned over to his family.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, making it impossible to confirm the account given to the Whites, the sources said.

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