I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Crossing The Line and Never Going Back: American Defectors To North Korea

by Tom Keiser
Dec. 20, 2011
Imagine being one of a handful of Americans in a foreign country.

Now, imagine being one of the only Americans in a country led by a cult of personality whose main tenets include hating everything your homeland symbolizes.

Six Americans defected to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea between 1962 and 1982.  Little is known of Roy Chung and Joseph T. White, who defected in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, respectively, and died shortly thereafter.  Larry Abisher and Jerry Wayne Parrish each spent over twenty years in the North, but have since passed away. Then in 2004, Nicholas Bonner and Daniel Gordon, British-born expatriates in China, were given the opportunity to speak with the two remaining defectors, James Joseph Dresnok and Charles Robert Jenkins.  The resulting film, Crossing The Line, aired on the BBC in 2006.

Most of the film focuses on James Joseph Dresnok, who crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 1962.  By the age of 21, Dresnok already survived a tough childhood and a failed marriage.  A desperate attempt to get some time off led him to forge a day pass, and when he was caught he decided to bolt to the North.  Upon his defection, he soon met Abisher, just nineteen, who defected a few months earlier after escaping punishment for repeatedly being caught smoking marijuana.

Overall, the four Americans profiled in Crossing The Line came from similar backgrounds.  None of them graduated from high school.  Most of them were either orphaned or came from broken families, and were escaping either court martial or, in Charles Robert Jenkins’s  case, the war in Vietnam.  They were treated like VIPs, especially Jenkins, who was a non-commissioned officer and brought with him an M14 rifle.  However, the four soon became disillusioned, and in 1966 attempted to defect to the Soviet Union.  The Soviets turned them in to the North Korean authorities, and reeducated them.

First praised for leaving America, then derided for being white, and then punished for trying to leave, Dresnok finally felt at home while studying leader Kim Il-Sung’s juche philosophy:  “Little by little I came to understand the Korean people”.

Eventually, the four Americans found their purpose in the DPRK, with memorable cameos in the 20-hour Korean War epic Unsung Heroes.  Of course, none of them played heroes, except for Jerry Wayne Parrish, who played a Northern Irish national who later becomes a Communist.  Dresnok and Jenkins had the most memorable roles, as respectively, the sadistic Lieutenant Colonel Arthur, and the reputed American mastermind of the Korean War, Dr. Kelton.  Jenkins was about forty when he made the movie, but as pointed out earlier in the film by Dresnok, looked old from the time he was a child.

Even for a group that never numbered larger than a half dozen, the group of defectors were extremely cliquey.  The relationship between Dresnok and Jenkins was largely acriniminous, although much of this might be clouded by developments occuring as Gordon and Bonner were filming.

In 2004, Jenkins’s Japanese wife returned to her homeland, almost 25 years after the North Koreans kidnapped her.  Jenkins and their two daughters would eventually leave Pyongyang for Japan.  After serving jail time for his defection from the United States, Charles Robert Jenkins was allowed to stay in Japan, where he would write a tell-all book eventually released in America as The Reluctant Communist.

Most attempts to make Dresnok look sympathetic are offset by Dresnok himself.  He is a hard living man whose heart and liver problems were self-inflicted by years of heavy drinking and smoking.  Neither Dresnok nor Jenkins have aged well, but Jenkins looks especially worse for the wear, and looks to be in his late seventies even though he was in his early to mid sixties at the time of filming.  As this article is being written, both Dresnok and Jenkins are still alive, which seems to be a minor miracle considering their lifestyles and appearance.  It is with similar amazement that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not only still around, but that their hatred against the United States has not eased with time.

With the death this week of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, North Korea is at a crossroads.  The few things we know about his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, are mostly about his days as an adolescent NBA fan, with a particular affinty towards the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.  North Korean footage taken from Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994 is unintentionally hilarious, as the entire nation literally becomes hysterical from his passing, as if they were watching The Beatles perform and die at the same time.

As James Joseph Dresnok enters his final years, we have no idea as to his thoughts on Kim Jong-Il’s passing.  Is he looking back to the death of Kim Il-Sung, or to the famine that decimated the DPRK during Jong-Il’s reign?  Is Dresnok thinking of the past, and how he spent almost fifty years as a stranger in his adopted homeland?  Or his he thinking about his own mortality and the future, where his sons will become the Western face of a notoriously anti-Western country, albiet one led by someone who has had a taste of American culture, and liked what he saw?

The Korean War ended in a bitter stalemate between the Communist north and the United Nations-backed south, and a decade into the uneasy peace, North Korean sentiment towards the Americans who fought and killed their people were understandably adversarial.  When a handful of U.S. soldiers defected into the DPRK, they had no idea that the rest of their lives would be defined by their crossing of the 38th Parallel.

References And Further Reading:

“The Dear Leader Takes Care Of Me”.  The Guardian, September 9, 2008.  An interview with James Joseph Dresnok, who expected then-front runner John McCain to win that year’s U. S. Presidential election.

“The Strange Saga Of Charles Robert Jenkins”.  Asia Times, June 5, 2004.  An article about Charles Robert Jenkins, immediately after seeking asylum in Japan.

“All Slammer, No Glamour: The Reluctant North Korean Film Star”.  Vice, 2009.  An interview with Jenkins, after the publication of his book, The Reluctant Communist.

Crossing The Line Screening Q&A and Introduction, 2007.  An introduction and Q&A with producer Nicholas Bonner at The Bookworm in Beijing.  Includes detail of how they gained access to Dresnok and Jenkins in the first place, after doing two documentaries if not sympathetically portraying North Korea, then at least giving a balanced portrait.

North Korean Diary: Fortune’s Favorites.  conelrad.blogspot.com, August 28, 2010.  A look into an English-language DPRK propaganda pamphlet, complete with a group photo of the defectors (although Jenkins’ photo has been obviously added in after the fact) and a “diary” of Dresnok’s alleged experiences after defecting to North Korea.

North Korean Heir Is Basically That Guy You Knew In 1996 Who Always Wore A Toni Kukoc Jersey:  deadspin.com, July 16, 2009, updated December 19, 2011.  Exactly what you think it’s about.
Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.