No other place on Earth is more secretive, more mysterious, and more impenetrable than North Korea. To this day, very little is known about the politics of the country, often making it nearly impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Most of what we know comes from defectors who tell us of painful starvation, brutal indoctrination, and a complete lack of political and social freedom unimaginable to the free people of the West. Needless to say, since the North Korean state came into existence in 1953, it has been known as an extremely undesirable place.
Why then, was an American soldier by the name of Larry Abshier the first of four U.S. soldiers to defect to North Korea in the 1960s? What could possibly motivate an American soldier to do such a thing? As with all things North Korean, there are two very different sides to this story.
Though Abshier was the first to defect, relatively little is known about him, as he was shy, passive, and had the misfortune of dying young, unlike many of his fellow defectors. But we do know that he led a troubled life from a young age. By the age of 14, he became a ward of the state, living at the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Children’s School. Enlisting in the Army gave him a way to escape his circumstances, though by 1962 he found himself in trouble again. Stationed at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on the North Korean border, he was caught smoking marijuana on a handful of occasions. Already demoted once and fearing court-marshal or outright dismissal, he made a fateful decision.
Abshier left his post and started walking on a dirt road, straight into what was then known as “no man’s land”. A fellow soldier spotted him, called Abshier to return, but the soldier kept walking. He vanished into a wasteland riddled with landmines and unexploded munitions. No one was sure where Abshier was for days. Did he defect? Was he hiding in somewhere in the DMZ? Or was he just AWOL somewhere in South Korea, enjoying yet another exotic cigarette?
Two weeks later, however, Radio Pyongyang ended the mystery byproudly proclaiming Abshier a defector. He was quickly put to use by the Communist regime. Soon, the North Korean propaganda machine made him state things like “I have never seen such a clean and cultural city as Pyongyang: overflowing with happiness…the [North Korean] people are all leading free, happy, and peaceful lives and working hard and diligently constructing for a happier tomorrow”.
Later, North Korean radio claimed that Abshier “came over to North Korea unable to endure the prick of consciousness and repress indignation at the doings of the United States Army in South Korea, and the humiliating life in [his] U.S. Army unit.” Further insisting that he was “subjected to intolerable insults and persecution of [his] superiors in [his] army life.”