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America’s Last Defector in North Korea: James Dresnok

In 1962, 21-year-old American soldier James Dresnok was facing a court-martial. He was stationed at the Demilitarized Zone between North- and South Korea. The young soldier was caught forging his superior’s autograph to leave his army base to visit his favourite local woman of the night. Real classy. A few hours before he was scheduled to meet with his commander, Dresnok took a radical decision that would forever change his life. As his fellow soldiers were having lunch, he bolted through the Demilitarized Zone and surrendered to the dumbfounded North Korean border guards. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea, the giant prison-state, where he lived for fifty (!) years.

Early Life

James Joseph Dresnok was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on November 24, 1941. His parents, Lucille and Joseph had a troubled marriage, resulting in young James’ tough childhood. They had another, younger son, Joseph II. His father was a veteran of the United States Army and his mother was a housewife and appeared to be an alcoholic. James later described his parents as ‘fighting like cats and dogs.’ In 1951 the unhappy couple filed for divorce, leading to James briefly staying with his father in Pennsylvania while his younger brother was sent to his grandfather. James was dropped off at his aunt’s house while his father worked. He wasn’t welcome, and ran away multiple times.

James Joseph Desnok (1941-2016)

It didn’t take long for his father to drop him off in a foster home, abandoning him. He flunked out of high school that same year. Frankly, early on, James’ life hadn’t been taking a pleasant direction. Still, a radio interview with his foster father described him as a ‘normal boy, mischievous, but always with a tear of repentance in his eyes.’ Not having much going for him, and perhaps as a last resort to create some stability, on November 25, 1958, one day after his 17th birthday, James enlisted in the United States Army. Many disadvantaged youths saw the army as a way out. And it often provided salvation to these youths, shaping structure, providing income and the possibilities to educate oneself further.

Initially, this appeared to be the case for James as well. While on leave, he proposed to 19-year-old Kathleen Ringwood. They married not too long later. In an interview, much later, he attributed his marriage to an attempt to forget his childhood’s pain. Still, this marriage too wasn’t successful. Soon after they tied the knot, James was deployed to West-Germany for two years. When he returned in 1961, Kathleen had been unfaithful and was actively engaged in another relationship. Still, the couple didn’t immediately file for divorce, although it’s safe to assume there was no romance anymore. In later years James recounted how the only upside of it all was that Kathleen never got pregnant because he swore he would never abandon his children.

The Defection

Then again, there wasn’t much time for romance. James immediately re-enlisted as a Private First Class, to be deployed to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He arrived there in May 1962, stating at that point he ‘didn’t care if he lived or died.’

During this time the Korean war was still freshly imprinted in the minds of many. The DMZ was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War divide, perhaps before the Berlin Wall was built. On the southern side, most of the services and goods were aimed at the U.S. servicemen and their paychecks. James spent all his income on the local ladies of the night. 

In August that year, James had been serving on the stakeout post for two weeks. While his fellow soldiers were allowed to go into the village, his company commander ordered him to remain at his post. That’s when James forged the sergeant’s signature on his slip, and went on pass regardless. Obviously recognised by his fellow servicemen, the following day, his commander summoned him and told him he’d expect James in his office by 3 PM, fully intending to court-martial him.

At noon that day, while everyone was eating lunch, James took the gamble. He walked into the minefield and then bolted through it. He reached the outpost of the North Korean army, when the border guards on duty surrounded him. James was blindfolded, tied up, and arrested. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea.

Escape Attempt

Dresnok enjoyed an unusual life in North Korea, although admittedly, any life of a U.S. serviceman in the Hermit Kingdom can be classified as unusual. Over the decades, to the outside world he became known as perhaps the most fervent Western supporter of the Kim-regime. 

But initially, it wasn’t necessarily like that. James was interrogated at length, but he didn’t have much valuable information because he hadn’t been in South Korea long. After that, he was put together with James Abshier, the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea after the Korean War. One year later, Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish joined them when he defected during a regular patrol round. In 1965 Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his patrol and he defected to North Korea out of fear that he’d be deployed to Vietnam. I’ve covered his life in a separate video, if you’re interested in his story after this one. 

These four men now became minor celebrities, appearing on propaganda posters, pamphlets, photos, and eventually films. James turned on the entire United States Army and recorded propaganda speeches, which the North Koreans would then play through megaphones along the DMZ towards South Korea. And the propaganda photos and posters made it look like the men ended up in utopia. Obviously, this was far from the truth. 

But as time progressed, the men began doubting if they made the right choice. Because, well, life in North Korea wasn’t anything the propaganda they produced made it out to be. There were widespread famines, the men were put under 24/7 guard and at least one of them, Jenkins, recounted how their guards regularly beat them. Not to mention the fact they were in a communist state with customs and people alien to them. Being 1,95 meters tall, James stood out of crowds and was shunned on the street, in stores and basically everywhere.

Four years after his defection, in 1966, together with the three other U.S. defectors, James took radical action. They sought help at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Pyongyang. They hoped the Soviet Union would grant them asylum. Probably unbeknownst to the defectors, the Cuban Missile Crisis had recently ended, and the Soviets weren’t too eager to take in a group of U.S. defectors. 

As the Soviets refused them, their diplomats alerted the North Koreans, who detained the four men. Attempting to flee North Korea meant facing severe punishment, obviously. Perhaps even execution. Still, Pyongyang must have considered the defectors too valuable to simply get rid of them. Instead, as punishment, the men suffered a harsh routine of ‘re-education.’

Re-education

In a one-room apartment in Pyongyang, the four men were ‘re-educated’ and forced to study Kim Il-sung’s writings for ten hours per day. According to Dresnok, this was the moment he decided not to attempt to leave North Korea and simply adjust. Although admittedly, there weren’t that many alternatives. The regime didn’t use the men for propaganda anymore, and for years they would not be heard from again. 

James made a serious effort to learn Korean and soon became more-or-less fluent. Kim Il-sung’s writings, the ones he was forced to read ten hours per day, impressed him to the degree that he began translating them to English. He studied North Korea’s history, its culture, the laws and policies of the worker’s party.

They stayed in the tiny apartment for years, reading hours a day, receiving beatings from guards and realising they needed to make themselves valuable to the regime if they wanted to survive. During this time the deserters had a serious falling out, with the fight mainly centred around Jenkins and Dresnok. 

Jenkins and Dresnok

At any rate, by 1972, the North Koreans decided the defectors’ re-education was sufficient. James became an official North Korean citizen, received food rations, his own modest apartment in Pyongyang and a job. Throughout the rest of his life, James worked as an English teacher in Pyongyang, educating both the North Korean youth and troops at military bases. 

Besides jobs such as teaching English at military bases, most defectors received North Korean propaganda films’ roles. James enjoyed his first big break in 1978, playing the villain in a war epic. It elevated him to celebrity status in North Korea. He played the archetypical American villain that the heroic North Koreans would eventually beat. That was the premise – James starred in several more films like this. He played the same character in each of them: the ruthless American PoW camp commander ‘Arthur.’ Arthur became an endearing nickname for him to the North Koreans.

James also was forced into a marriage with an abducted woman. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. Romanian Doina Bumbea, abducted from Italy by North Korean agents, married him. The couple had two sons: Ted and James.

In 1997 Doina passed away and James remarried to a woman whose name is unknown. For sure, she is the daughter of a Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. Their son, Tony, was born in 2001. 

Dresnok’s Final Years

James’s most recent information and footage come from the 2006 documentary ‘Crossing the Line,’ which centred around him. In it, he reiterated his conviction that North Korea is the place to be for him. Even if there are a billion dollars in gold on the table, he will not leave. He considers North Korea his home. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, it’s definitely worth watching. 

As for the allegations about bad living conditions in North Korea, James denied everything. When Jenkins returned to Japan with his wife, he revealed many abuse cases of the prison state, the malnourishment, beatings, and the program to train western-looking children to spy. James denied all these allegations against the North Korean regime, and does not appear to have had any faltering loyalty to the communist prison-state.

But already during the shooting of the documentary Bonner and the director, Daniel Gordon reported that James was in bad health due to his alcohol- and smoking habits. For example, a scene showed James being reprimanded by a doctor for drinking and smoking too much. Gordon even openly speculated James would not be able to see the final result, although that prediction turned out to be a bit too pessimistic.

It wasn’t until 2016 when North Korean state media, Uriminzokkiri, published a short clip featuring James’ two sons, that it became clear James passed away earlier that year. Interestingly enough, both men speak Korean fluently, and they wear the typical North Korean military uniform. 

Dresnok’s sons

Dresnok’s three sons and wife survived him. All of them remain in North Korea, and the oldest two sons played roles in North Korean propaganda films, just like his father. 

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