James Dresnok defects to North Korea

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line, about U.S. soldier James Dresnok who defected to North Korea in 1962

What is the worst crime an American soldier can commit? Other than desert to Al Qaeda, the most heinous act of treason is deserting to North Korea, or the DPKR as it called there.

It is almost unimaginable why an American would desert to North Korea, one of the poorest and most closed states in the world, but that is exactly what James Dresnok, 21, did in August 15, 1962 when he abandoned his post in South Korea, crossed the DMZ, and entered communist North Korea.

There he was questioned, and then slowly over the years became assimilated into North Korean society, where he has even had a movie career that made hm famous throughout the country.

Dresnok is one of four American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the 1960s. He is the only one alive and still in the country. Another, Charles Robert Jenkins, lived in North Korea until 2004, after which he was allowed to move to Japan with his Japanese wife. The other two defectors, Larry Abshier, Jerry Parrish, are dead.

Dresnok is the subject of a fascinating documentary called Crossing The Line (2006) by Daniel Gordon.

In the film, Dresnok, despite heavy drinking and smoking, seems comfortable in his North Korean life. He is taken care off by the government, lives relatively well, and his children receive a good education.

Crossing the Line, documentary about James Dresnok

Crossing the Line, about James Dresnok. [See foreign movies]

James Dresnok

James Dresnok. [See movie scandals]

James Dresnok in North Korea

James Dresnok and fishing buddies. [See Catherine Breillat movies]

Dresnok, despite his humble beginnings and troubled childhood, which did not prepare him well for adjusting to other cultures and learning foreign languages, has overcome many of his shortcomings and is famous in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, which has been his home for more than 40 years.



Question: Did you not enjoy life as an American soldier? Were you treated badly?

Dresnok: While stationed in Germany, I was forced to clean an armoured truck with a toothbrush and bucket of water. That's when I first thought of crossing to a communist country. But if you went to the DDR (East Germany) they interrogated you and sent you back.

Question: While serving in the U.S. Army along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, you learned that your wife had left you for another man. How did that affect you?

Dresnok: It made me not care about my life. I wanted to go to the most dangerous place in the world.

Question: You didn't have any strong ties back in America?

Dresnok: I didn't have any relatives back home, my wife had left me, I didn't have anything to live for in the United States.

Question: At the time you deserted, you faced a court martial for abandoning your post to visit a nearby village. Did that push you to defect?

Dresnok: That's when I made my decision to cross. I decided, 'I'm going for a new life'. I grabbed a shotgun and headed for the DMZ. Sure, I knew about the personnel mines, maybe I could lose a foot or a leg -- but I just went, straight... A cry went up, 'Hey Dresnok, stop!' So I just fired off a round to scare them. I have no regrets.

Question: Did you think it would be a big problem fitting in to North Korean society? At one point, you and the other Americans in North Korea tried to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy.

Dresnok: We thought the Russians would help and understand us because we were white... When I first came here, I didn't feel so good. People would say, 'There's that American bastard!' People here, see, were educated to hate American imperialism. All that bombing! How many did they slaughter? They killed Koreans like savages. Of course people are going to hate Americans.

I didn’t think I could adapt. But, Man is the master of his life, and little by little I came to understand the Korean people.

Question: Do you have any regrets about what you have done?

Dresnok: I have never regretted coming to the DPRK. I feel at home here.

Question: Do you understand that Americans think of you as a traitor?

Dresnok: I don't consider myself a traitor. I love my country. I love my town.

Question: Would you like to visit America?

Dresnok: I must be honest to you. I would like to see the place. But how can I go there and dance in front of the American government, when they are arming South Korea?

Question: Are you worried about growing old in North Korea?

Dresnok: The government is going to take care of me until my dying day.

Critics' voice

New York Daily News: Aside from some resonant hints that all is not as it seems, Crossing The Line leaves it to you to decide where the truths begin and ends. You'll be untangling Dresnok's knotty reality long after you leave the theater.

New York Post: Dresnok has done well for himself, marrying twice and having three children. But if he wants to see his kids grow up, he's going to have to lose weight and cut down on the booze and cigarettes.

Armand Whyte's view Crossing The Line gives the unpalatable view that life can be unbearable in the United States and the armed forces. James Dresnok improved himself by defecting to North Korea. His life is far from perfect but it is not utterly miserable. This is a compelling documentary.

By Armand Whyte