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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. 

Thank you for watching this video. If there’s a topic or event you’d like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. You can buy merchandise such as this mug on my website, the link is in the description. I would also like to thank all my Patrons and channel members for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon or becoming a channel member. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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The American Sergeant Who Defected to North Korea: Charles Jenkins

During the 1960s the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Events that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erecting of the Berlin Wall. On the other side of the world, the division between North- and South Korea had just begun settling in as a permanent reality, after the bloody Korean War was concluded with an armistice the decade before. Dictator Kim Il-sung, the founder of Communist North Korea, still ruled his Hermit Kingdom, closed off from most of the world.

Charles Jenkins

The Defection


Perhaps seemingly unrelated but crucial to know for this story, elsewhere in Asia the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly escalating. To many American servicemen at the time, Vietnam seemed like an inevitable destination. It was the same for 24-year-old Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins. He joined the army in 1958 and was deployed to Korea for a year in 1960. In late 1964 he was redeployed for his second tour. It’s how on that fateful night in January 1965 he found himself stationed at the border between North- and South Korea, tasked with regular patrols in the demilitarised zone. However, Charles was afraid of the certain death that awaited him in Vietnam. As the possibility of him being sent there got closer, he began getting more anxious and depressed. In turn, he began planning radical action to dodge potential deployment to Vietnam. Although admittedly, it’s doubtful his alternative was a better idea.

During one of his nightly patrols, he decided to leap into the unknown. Some reports state he drank ten beers that night. Together with his platoon, he patrolled through a wooded area in the demilitarised zone. Charles then ordered his men to wait for him while checking a supposed noise out in the dark. His men waited for him to return… and they waited. But Charles didn’t turn up. According to reports, his men sounded the alarm when he failed to return. Immediately, a massive search around the southern side of the demilitarised zone was set up. North Korea was known for its rogue tactics and abduction of a U.S. serviceman from the demilitarised zone didn’t seem unlikely. Regardless of the extensive search, his comrades never found Charles. 

It wasn’t until decades later the world found out what exactly transpired during those minutes Charles supposedly went to investigate something in the dark. It wasn’t a pre-planned abduction by the North Korean military. Instead, Charles simply rushed through the wooded area, onto North Korean territory. When he ran into dumbfounded North Korean border guards, he gave up his weapon and surrendered. Charles Jenkins had officially defected to North Korea, a country that would hold him for nearly forty years. After the extensive search didn’t turn up anything, and they investigated Charles’ recent mail, the U.S. Army considered defection the most likely reason for Charles’ disappearance.

Demilitarized zone

Yet the world didn’t know what happened to Charles after his defection – there was a near-complete media silence coming from North Korea during the following decades. It does the state’s moniker, the Hermit Kingdom, justice. Several weeks after his defection an internal radiobroadcast from Pyongyang made clear a U.S. serviceman defected. The reason given was because of the awful conditions of South Korea, leading the serviceman to believe the quality of life in North Korea was much better. But that’s about it. 

The immediate aftermath of how the American side perceived his defection can be pieced together from newspaper articles during that time. It goes without saying that it was heavily frowned upon. The press didn’t have any sympathy for Charles, and many articles really did a number on him. Newspaper editors also got a hold of the note Charles left for his mother before his defection, in which he apologised for the “trouble he will cause her.” The letter stated: “I know what I’ll have to do, I’m going to North Korea. Tell the family I love them very much. Love, Charles.”

Charles friends and family continued to believe he was abducted from the border. His mother, Pattie Casper, conveyed that Charles would not have willingly defected, even though he left a letter stating his intentions. Breadcrumbs of information about Charles’s life and situation were occasionally released from the Hermit Kingdom, but much of the case was shrouded in mystery. Only thanks to a curious turn of events in 2002, nowadays we know a lot about Charles’ life within North Korea… and about North Korea itself. 

Time in Captivity

What makes Charles’ story even more interesting is that he was able to escape North Korea. As one of the few people ever to do so. We’ll get to how he managed to escape the prison-state in a bit. But upon his release, Charles gave interviews recounting his defection and subsequent life. So we can actually get a glimpse from his perspective of what happened after that fateful night.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Charles reminisced how, looking back, he thought of himself as incredibly naive. He defected during the Cold War era, and the gameplan of the young sergeant was to be extradited to the Soviet Union through Pyongyang. And the Soviets would hopefully grant him asylum. Well, things didn’t even remotely turn out like that. Instead, for decades Charles remained, in what he described as a ‘gigantic, crazy prison nobody gets out of.’

That is not to say he was stuck behind bars for most of his life though. He might have been a Pyongyang prisoner but wasn’t stuck in a traditional prison as we know it. As one of the few Western prisoners in North Korea, he initially lived in a small room together with three other U.S. deserters. The North Koreans forced them to study Kim Il-sung’s works for ten hours per day, beating them regularly. They endured malnourishment and deplorable living conditions. According to his testimonies, he was forced to dig his own grave several times, as a form of extreme psychological torture.

Seven years later Charles finally received his own home and a North Korean passport. Yet he was still under constant surveillance and scrutiny. His house was unheated, which caused harsh winters, and thanks to the widespread famine in North Korea malnourishment was still a daily reality.

The lack of Western prisoners in the country might have been a blessing in disguise, though. It allowed Charles to play the archetypical ‘evil American spy’ in over twenty propaganda films. He also appeared on propaganda leaflets. When he wasn’t acting, he taught English at a military school. He wasn’t useless to the regime, and as such was allowed to continue living… albeit in hardship.

In his autobiography “The Reluctant Communist”, published after his release, he describes how he went to teach English at a military school during one summer. Due to the hot weather, he had his sleeves rolled up, exposing his U.S. Army tattoo. Several doctors were immediately summoned to the school. They grabbed Charles and used a scalpel and scissors to remove his tattoo without any anaesthesia. 

The Release

Now, although Charles willingly defected in 1965, North Korea actually has an infamous abduction program. They mainly abduct Japanese citizens. These are then employed as cultural trainers for their spies. Yeah, really. Shockingly enough there is a considerable list of Japanese people that are assumed to have been abducted by the North Korean secret service. Among these abductees was Hitomi Soga. This Japanese woman, a nurse, was kidnapped together with her mother in 1978 at the age of 19.

As it turned out, two years after her abduction, she was forced to live with Charles. She had been teaching Japanese to North Korean spies. The couple was forced to marry, and Charles was encouraged to take advantage of her. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. Although not necessarily a recipe for love, Charles treated Hitomi with respect and the couple actually developed a loving relationship. They married, lived together for over two decades and even had two daughters. 

It was through his wife that Charles eventually was released from his decades-long captivity in North Korea. In 1994 Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung succeeded him. As a gesture for diplomatic rapprochement, Jong-il admitted that North Korea abducted thirteen Japanese citizens during the previous decades. By this point, eight of them already died, but he considered allowing the other five to travel to Japan to visit their family briefly.

After the Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in the fall of 2002, Hitomi and four others were allowed to return home for ten days. Although their visit to Japan was intended to be brief, the Japanese government did not return their citizens. Instead, it opened negotiations to have the abductees’ family members repatriated in addition to the initial group. 

Many of these families eventually were allowed to return. North Korea hoped to earn some diplomatic goodwill. But Charles stayed behind with their two daughters because he feared Japan would extradite him to the United States. Over there he would be prosecuted for desertion. Other sources mention that Charles was brainwashed to the degree that he thought the entire ploy was an attempt by Pyongyang to test his loyalty. 

Two years later, in May 2004 Japanese PM Koizumi again travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Charles. Charles reiterated his conviction that he was unwilling to leave North Korea. But in July that year, Charles and their two daughters flew to Indonesia. For Charles, one of the reasons besides seeing his wife, who he hadn’t seen for two years, was to receive urgent medical treatment. Indonesia was chosen as the destination because it didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. Initially, Charles was only allowed to leave North Korea temporarily, receive medical treatment, and subsequently return to Pyongyang.

Yet Koizumi and others managed to convince him to take the gamble, face a court-martial and be reunited with his family. Risking a life sentence, he travelled to Japan. In turn, Japan’s government requested a formal pardon from the U.S. government, which they declined to grant. After arriving in Japan in July, Charles reported to the U.S. Army Post Camp Zama, nearby Tokyo.  

In November that same year, his trial commenced. Charles pled guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, was sentenced to thirty days in prison and received a dishonourable discharge. Due to good behaviour, he was released after 24 days. At 64 years of age, for the first time in 40 years, it appeared Charles was finally a free man again.

Charles Jenkins in 2007

Upon his release, the entire family moved to Sado, Hitomi’s place of residence before she was abducted. There, Hitomi became a nurse again, and Charles took up a job as a greeter at an attraction park. As far as I could find, his daughters managed to attain steady employment in Japan and ended up doing well for themselves. Up until his last moments, Charles hailed his wife as the heroine that saved his life. He passed away in December 2017, at the age of 77 in Sado.

San Bernardino Sun, Volume 71, 28 January 1965
https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2017/12/9c4a3e2c7f90-update1-jenkins-husband-of-japanese-ex-abductee-to-n-korea-dies-at-77.html

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Conrad Schumann and the Jump to Freedom

It is perhaps the most famous photograph from the Cold War. On August 15th, 1961, East German border guard Conrad Schumann was just 19 years old when he made the daring leap to freedom. It just so happened a photographer was present, and he captured the initial jump over the barbed wire, the sprint to a West German police car and Schumann driving away in its backseat. 

The photo series is iconic and both sides, both West- and East Germany used it for propaganda purposes. Yet the, admittedly rather tragic story behind the young guard that risked his life in an attempt to reach freedom is much less known.

Hans Conrad Schumann was born on March 28th, 1942. He was born in Zschonau at Döbeln, in Saxony, East-Germany to a sheepherder. In 1960 at the age of 18, Conrad joined the Volkspolizei-Bereitschaften, a paramilitary police unit of East Germany. These units were tasked with riot control, anti-insurgency and were part of the armed forces, albeit not part of the actual East German Army. Conrad received his initial training in Dresden but was soon moved to Berlin.

And over in Berlin, on August 13th, 1961, the construction of the Berlin Wall started. It would separate East and West Berlin until November 1989. The wall became one of the most prominent symbols of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the German separation. After the Second World War, many East Germans fled to West-Germany, which was the easiest to do in Berlin because of its geographical location. It is estimated that between approximately 2.5 to 3.5 million people fled from East to West between 1949 and 1961. And not just Germans, but other people from Soviet satellite states that wanted to escape, used Berlin as a “gate to freedom,” if you will.

Because of this ‘brain drain’ of the Soviet satellite states, Nikita Khrushchev decided radical action ought to be taken to stop this. Together with Walter Ulbricht, First Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, he arranged a wall to be built. As such, on the night of August 12th to 13th the construction of the Berlin Wall began. At first, the passage was closed off with barbed wire, and within several weeks heavily guarded concrete blocks were placed to block any path. The East German government ordered its border guards to shoot at anyone that tried to cross to West Berlin.

And, well, one of those border guards was Conrad. He was on guard on August 15th 1961, just two days after the initial barbed wire fenceposts were erected. Conrad’s task was to guard the crossroads at the Bernauerstrasse and Ruppinerstrasse. On the West-German side, the young photographer Peter Liebling happened to stand there, with his camera. He noticed Conrad, seemingly tense, looking at the barbed wire shiftily whenever the other guards he was with had their backs turned to him. Liebling decided to wait and see if anything would happen. 

West Germans, gathering around the barbed wire fence, started shouting at the East German border guards: “Komm’ rüber!”, which means so much as come over. Because the West-German police were aware there was a direct order by the government to shoot at anyone trying to cross, they parked a police van closeby for any potential escapees to hide in.

At around 4 PM, Schumann, standing against a wall next to the barbed wire was smoking a cigarette. He takes one last look around, flicks his cigarette away and bolts towards the barbed wire. As he is running he drops his PPSh-41 machine gun, leaving it behind and takes the leap over the barbed wire. Now on the West-German side, he darts to the police van, rushes inside, and closes the door. Conrad Schumann has defected to West Germany. The West German police subsequently drives him away to safety. The entire episode could not have lasted for over than half a minute, but the photographs taken by Liebling immortalised it. When Conrad arrives at the police station he asks for a sandwich. He does not yet know that his life is about to take a dramatic turn.

Because from that fateful day on, the 19-year-old and his escape was to be used for propaganda purposes both by East- and West Germany. The West German authorities consider him a hero and portray him as a man that took the ultimate risk and left his life behind to reach the “free world.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, Conrad is considered nothing more than an ordinary traitor. The Communist government initially issues press releases that state Conrad was abducted against his will by West German authorities, but when they realise there is photographic evidence of his escape, they change the narrative. A curious detail is that neither Conrad nor Liebling ever received a single penny for the photographs, although they were widely spread around the world.

But besides the propaganda, the direct aftermath wasn’t exactly great for Conrad either. Because of his position as a border guard, the Western intelligence services tried to get as much information as possible out of him. He was interrogated for quite an extended period, and later recalled that in the days following his defection he felt “squeezed like a lemon.” Information about Conrad’s family tricked over the wall into West Germany as well. Conrad learned that his family that stayed behind got quite the brunt for his defection. They are put under 24/7 surveillance by the Stasi, the Staatssicherheitsdienst, the notorious state security service of East Germany. Because of the publicity his escape received due to the photos, his family is ostracised in East Germany. And what is more: he receives multiple letters by family members begging him to return to East Germany. Conrad realises these letters were written under duress by the Stasi and never issues a reply. If he were to return, he would surely be put on trial and perhaps even be executed. The decades following his defection, he is under considerable stress. Yet he ends up finding a wife who he marries and has a son with. For the next couple of decades, he works at an Audi factory in Bavaria. 

But he later admitted he didn’t feel too safe in West Germany either: he was afraid, continually looking over his shoulder, nervous about a potential hit job by East German secret agents. Fortunately, a hit job never occurred. But it isn’t until November 9th, 1989 that he feels truly free. That night the Berlin wall comes down, signalling the end of the division of Berlin, and eventually Germany as a whole. 

Yet Conrad doesn’t visit his family for several years, and when he finally does, the meeting is quite awkward. Many are happy to see him, but others don’t want anything to do with him. They consider him a traitor or resent him for the trouble they received for his defection. Conrad remained a troubled man himself, even after the fall of the wall. On June 20th, 1998, he took his own life by hanging. He was 56 years old and left behind a wife and son. A very tragic end to a man that captured the world’s imagination by his daring escape. 

It is estimated that in the near 30 years the wall stood tall, over 200 people that tried to cross the border were shot. Although it doesn’t stand anymore, the wall remains a symbol of the East- and West division that marked the Cold War and the suppression the Soviet satellite states suffered under Communist rule. 

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The Stolen MiG-25 “Foxbat” and Viktor Belenko’s Defection of 1976

In 1976 the Cold War was still an ongoing reality for the entire world. Defections from the Soviet bloc to the Western world weren’t too uncommon throughout these decades, although oftentimes these defectors were athletes, artists or scholars. It was quite rare for a serving member of the military to defect, let alone if they weren’t stationed at a border such as the Berlin Wall. 

Yet on the 6th of September 1976 one of the ‘national prides’ of the Soviet Union, a fighter-pilot, did the unthinkable. During a training mission near the Siberian airbase Chuguyevka, near Vladivostok, USSR pilot Viktor Belenko, flying his Mikoyan-Gurevich MIG-25, nicknamed “Foxbat”, suddenly dove below radar detection elevation, turned off his radio and sped towards Japan as fast as he could.

In Japan, the aircraft popped up on radar screens after not too long. But due to its speed, before any action could be taken against this potentially hostile intruder, Belenko had already reached the airfield of Hakodate. Rapidly approaching the airport his MiG-25 only had 30 seconds of fuel remaining, and as such Belenko again dove full-speed towards the airfield. During his descent, he narrowly escaped a collision with a Japanese passenger plane, reached the landing strip at a speed that was way too high, knocked over two large antennas on the airfield and with squeaking brakes finally managed to come to a standstill after 250 metres. Viktor Belenko had officially defected to the West. 

Belenko’s MiG-25

Diplomatic Tensions

Following Belenko’s defection, the United States was on the case in no-time. Because, well, obviously Belenko was interesting because he could elaborate a lot about Soviet tactics, but the plane he flew in was at the time a mystery to the United States. The MiG-25 had been operating for six years and the wildest stories circulated about its abilities. Nobody in the West had seen the aircraft up close yet, and now one of them simply landed on an airbase of an allied country. It was a chance the US wasn’t willing to pass up. 

But the Japanese were in a bit of a pickle. To begin with they didn’t know what to do with Belenko when he crash-landed on the airfield. They arrested him, charged him with several crimes including the invasion of Japanese airspace, destroying the antennas on the airfield and carrying an illegal firearm. But Belenko’s charges were the least of their worries. The Soviet Union only realised Belenko had defected when he didn’t return after the training mission due to his low-level flight. As a rescue mission was set up for the presumed crash site, border guards informed the air force that a plane had crossed the border towards Japan.

And Japan now became the playball between the two international heavyweights – the Soviet Union and United States. The US was pressuring Japan to hand Belenko and the aircraft over to them. At the same time, the Soviets demanded the repatriation of Belenko and the plane before the US would turn it inside out and subject it to detailed inspection. Japan had to choose between remaining friends with the US or risk disturbing their gigantic threatening neighbour, the Soviet Union.

Initially, Japan allowed the US just to inspect the aircraft and run some radar tests with it. But because they realised their national defence benefited from the military knowledge, within too long they allowed the US to extract as much information from the MiG-25 as possible. The aircraft was moved to a nearby airbase where it was subject to a rigorous inspection and taken apart completely. It provided a wealth of information about the latest technological situation of the USSR and its military capabilities. 

The information about the aircraft the U.S. published was that it was a ‘thing from the past’ designed with ‘crude technology’. And that wasn’t too wrong, although a bit exaggerated. The US had indeed overestimated the capabilities of the MiG-25 by a longshot, with US Defence Secretary Schlesinger once stating that the “MiG -25 is the only aircraft scaring all the world.” This conviction stemmed from the Soviets flying MiG-25s over Israel without being intercepted during the Yom Kippur war. 

Upon inspection, it became clear the aircraft indeed was easy to repair and could suffer intense heat and damage due to its steel airframe. Its radar had two wavebands, which meant it could not be jammed, something the US was eager to copy. Nevertheless, its radar technology was considered outdated.

Belenko himself revealed a significant amount of information as well. For example, he explained that the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a long-range high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft caused enormous frustration within the USSR airforce. It was assumed the MiG-25 was the only soviet aircraft that could intercept the blackbird. The Blackbird would fly at an incredible speed and high altitude on reconnaissance missions, and although the Soviet airforce apparently tried to shoot one Blackbird down by using multiple MiG-25s, the plane simply was too fast for both the MiG-25s and its missiles. The missiles were unable to reach an altitude higher than 27 kilometres and even if the Blackbird flew at the right height it would still outpace them. He also revealed information about the latest design, the MiG-25MP, supposed to be another fear-inducing secret weapon. 

Belenko’s Identity Document

Belenko’s defection sent a shockwave through Soviet military command because their ‘secret weapon’ they knew the US feared was now in the hands of their adversary. They realised it would not take long for the US to develop weaponry and aircraft designed to counter the MiG-25. It led to the rapid development of another plane, the MiG-25PD the so-called Foxbat-E. Its first model came into action in 1979, just a bit over two years after Belenko’s defection.

So what were Belenko’s motives to defect from the Soviet Union? In interviews, he said he was tired and fed up of the lies the government told its people. Supposedly the Soviet Union was a paradise on earth, but in reality, most citizens lived in poverty and the economy was in ruins. Nevertheless, the ruling Communist Party kept up the propaganda machine stating the Soviet Union was the greatest country on earth. 

When the US was done inspecting the MiG-25, they packed it up in 30 crates and told the Soviets they were free to pick it up. The Soviet delegation initially wanted to arrive with an Antonov AN-22, a heavy military transport aircraft and inspect all the pieces of the MiG-25 before they left. The Japanese refused that, and the crates were moved to the harbour, loaded on the Taigonos cargo boat and shipped off to Vladivostok on the 15th of November 1976, just 2 months after Belenko had defected. 

Upon return the Soviets quickly realised just how much information the US had extracted from the aircraft. The engines were obviously ran, they measured the aircraft’s infrared signature and apparently made a “detailed analysis of the systems and avionics, including the radar and structural materials.” Because the hardware was foreign to them some parts were damaged, giving away the inspection it had undergone.

Compensation

The upside of the entire defection was that the Soviet Union was now finally able to export their not-so-secret aircraft to other countries. In the following years they shipped it to Algeria, Bulgaria, India, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Even to this day the Algerian, Syrian and Libyan air force operates MiGs. 

Following this very interesting defection, there was some financial and judicial aftermath. To begin with, Japan demanded 40.000 dollars from the Soviet Union for damage to their airfield and the labour costs of packing the MiG-25 parts in 30 crates. In return, the Soviets sent a counter-claim of 10 million dollars. It turned out the US secretly kept 20 parts of the aircraft, and because according to the Soviets Japan was responsible for the plane, they had to reimburse them. As far as I could find I don’t think either country has paid the claim so far.

As for Belenko, 4 years after his defection in 1980 he became a naturalised US citizen. He wrote an autobiography titled MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko. He married a North Dakota music teacher and had two sons, although, curiously enough, he was married in the Soviet Union during his defection and never divorced his Russian wife. He has a son from this marriage too, presumably still living in Russia. 

And that’s the story of the defection of Viktor Belenko and its aftermath: one of the Soviet Union’s best kept secret aircraft literally handed to its adversaries on a silver platter.

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The Soviet Navy Officer that Prevented Nuclear War: Vasily Arkhipov

Often times, people and events are covered on this channel that have genuinely managed to influence the history of humankind – for better or worse. Some of these people are more well known than others. Now, what if I told you that you owe your life to a relatively unknown Soviet Navy Officer. But not just you, though, I do as well, and more or less everyone alive today.

Because it was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. On the 27th of October 1962, the B-59 submarine was trapped under an American fleet and, in their perception, was under attack by depth charges exploding around them. The submarine had embarked on a mission from the Soviet Union nearly four weeks earlier, in order to guard Soviet weapon transports to Cuba. Onboard were 70 crewmen. The three most senior officers were Captain Valentin Savitsky, the political officer Semonovich Maslennikov and the 2nd Lieutenant Vasily Arkhipov.

The B-59 was a submarine that initially was built for Arctic expeditions and was driven by diesel. It was now stuck underwater near Cuba, in a climate that it wasn’t built for. According to letters from the crew of the submarine, the inside would often reach temperatures over 50 degrees with poorly filtered oxygen and mounting pressure from the depths. All in all, Soviet submarines didn’t have the ideal circumstances to make rational decisions in.

The B-59 Submarine

There also was a US fleet guarding Cuba, consisting of the USS Randolph and 11 destroyers. They received orders, when they detected unidentified submarines, to use depth charges to force submarines to the surface. Now, President John F. Kennedy worried about this practice because the subs could mistake the depth charges for an actual attack. According to Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, the depth charges were ‘the greatest source of worry for the president.’ And, well, funnily enough, President Kennedy wasn’t too wrong to worry about the practice. When the US fleet realised there was an unidentified submarine, they launched the depth charges to try and force it to surface.

In the B-59 its commanders and crew thought they were under attack when depth charges exploded around them. The fact the submarine had lost all radio contact with Moscow days before didn’t really help the situation. They never received the message that depth charges would be used by the US navy to try and establish contact with submarines. The submarine had also listened to US radio broadcasts, and from those programs, its crew understood that the US knew missiles were being shipped to Cuba in secret and that Cuba had shot down a US spy plane earlier that day. So the crew knew of the troubled situation on the surface, and now they were being bombarded with depth charges. It caused them to dive even further down below to avoid the impact of the charges but resulted in them unable to listen to the American radio stations as well. 

Taking all things into consideration two of the submarine’s commanders figured the Third World War had broken out and decided to launch nuclear torpedoes against the US war fleet. For a nuclear torpedo to be launched three commanders had to agree to the launch, however. And this is where Arkhipov came in.

Arkhipov was well-known among Soviet navy personnel and although formally he was outranked by Savitsky, in practice they were on equal footing. He thanked his status to an incident that occurred a year beforehand when he was the second commander on the Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine that suffered a near-meltdown. Following the accident Arkhipov went to repair the reactor, being exposed to much nuclear radiation. Meanwhile, a mutiny broke out among its crew and was only subdued because Arkhipov openly supported the submarine’s captain. Because of his heroic actions during that incident, at least among navy circles, he became a respected commander.

Vasily Arkhipov

According to eyewitness accounts, a heated debate broke out onboard between Savitsky, Maslennikov and Arkhipov. The latter tried to convince the other commanders that if the war had broken out the US fleet would have scored a direct hit instead of exploding depth charges around them. Furthermore, it was the protocol that nuclear missiles only could be used if the Soviet Union was under direct attack, or an attack was imminent. The submarine was incredibly close to launching a nuclear missile against the US fleet and only because Arkhipov kept a cool head he managed to prevent it. 

Because the necessary unanimity to use nuclear weapons wasn’t achieved, eventually, the commanders decided to rise to the surface instead. On the surface, a US destroyer sailed past, but no one entered the submarine. This meant the US navy had no idea there was a nuclear warhead on board, nor how close they got to all-out nuclear war. If the missile had been launched, it would have led to a chain effect where the US retaliated, and the Soviet Union retaliated again, with complete nuclear destruction of the world as a result.

As for Arkhipov, as far as we know he wasn’t punished, but he wasn’t lauded either. He became a commander on his own submarine and eventually commanded an entire submarine squadron. In 1975 he was promoted to rear admiral and became head of the Kirov naval academy. He ended his Navy career with the rank of vice admiral. He died in 1998 at the age of 72, from kidney cancer, supposedly caused by his exposure to radiation on the K-19 submarine a year before the Cuba Crisis. Forty years after the Cuba Crisis in 2002 the director of the national security archive, Thomas Blanton, stated that a man “with the name of Vasily Arkhipov saved the world.”

There was another nuclear scare over 20 years later. Because of a faulty detection system commanding officer, Stanislav Petrov had to determine whether or not a nuclear strike was launched against the Soviet Union. His decision not to retaliate that night also saved the entire world from a nuclear war. If you’d like to know more about that, check out my article about the nuclear close call of 1983.