- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

PUSAN, South Korea — Unrepentant and professing support for communism, the last living American defector in North Korea has spoken out publicly for the first time about his life in the nation and his motivations for defecting — on celluloid.

“I’m telling you a story I never told anyone,” James “Comrade Joe” Dresnok says in the film “Crossing the Line,” which had its world premiere Monday at South Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival. “I have never regretted coming to [North Korea]. I feel at home.”

Made by British filmmakers in North Korea, the documentary sheds light on a unique Cold War story: that of an underprivileged, despairing and desperate American who finds contentment in North Korea.

Mr. Dresnok, an Army private from Norfolk, also acknowledges difficulties he faced, and the film contrasts his testimony with that of U.S. veterans and of fellow defector Charles Jenkins, who declined to criticize the regime until he had escaped it.

Mr. Dresnok, born in 1941, was the product of a broken home. After his parents’ divorce, he was sent to an orphanage that he describes as “a living hell.” Enlisting at 17, he suffered a failed marriage before being posted to the tense inter-Korean border.

There, between dangerous patrols, he spent his pay on prostitutes. Facing disciplinary action after visiting a girlfriend against orders, he defected to the North through perilous minefields in 1962.

“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” he says.

Captured, he and three fellow U.S. defectors were feted as propaganda trophies and put to work creating propaganda material.

“We took great pride in it,” Mr. Dresnok said. “He’d found la-la land,” counters a former U.S. officer.

Life under Asian communism initially was hard for the uneducated Southerner. “I didn’t want to stay,” he said, citing racism. “I didn’t think I could adapt.”

In 1966, he and his fellow defectors sought asylum at Pyongyang’s Soviet Embassy. Rejected, they underwent intense re-education.

“I got to think like this, act like this,” he said, adding that he learned North Korea’s official Juche ideology and its “lofty virtues.”

In 1972, the four received citizenship. In 1978, they achieved local fame acting out the parts of evil capitalists in a spy-film series, “Nameless Heroes.” They also taught English.

The film contrasts the watery grays of Pyongyang with the rustic hues of Mr. Dresnok’s native Virginia. He is seen fishing and drinking, visiting his tailor and celebrating his youngest son’s birthday in his small apartment. He has married twice in the North, to a Romanian and to a Togolese.

“I take pride in having a son at college,” he says. His blond son, James, who speaks English with a Russian accent, is at a foreign-language school. “In America, I don’t believe I could afford it.”

The most emotional moment is when he sobs, saying, “I swore that in my life I would never abandon my children.”

His comment reflects one by Mr. Jenkins, a former Army sergeant who left the North with his Japanese wife and two children with the assistance of the Japanese government in 2004. Mr. Jenkins worried that the foreign-language schools his daughters attended were recruiting grounds for spies, and said that was his motivation for escaping.

Mr. Dresnok takes the opposite view. He angrily disputes the assertions of the former sergeant, and hints at an affair with Mr. Jenkins’ Japanese wife. “I’d like to kill [him],” he snarls.

Today, Mr. Dresnok’s life is, by North Korean standards, privileged.

During the deadly famines of the late 1990s, “Korean people starved to death, but I got rice rations,” he says. “The government is going to take care of me until my dying day.”

He appears cheerful, though he is missing his front teeth. It is not clear whether this is related to beatings Mr. Jenkins claimed U.S. defectors suffered. What is clear is Mr. Dresnok is seriously ill from heavy drinking and smoking. The two other U.S. defectors — Pvt. Larry Allen Abshier and Cpl. Jerry Wayne Parish — both died from natural causes, he says.

Mr. Dresnok received no financial benefit from being filmed, “apart from the odd bottle of hooch,” said the film’s co-producer, Nick Bonner, who runs Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which takes tourists to North Korea.

Mr. Bonner said the filmmakers interviewed Mr. Dresnok without government minders being present, and were not censored. At only one point in the film, in front of the American spy ship USS Pueblo, captured in 1968, does Mr. Dresnok refuse to be filmed.

Mr. Bonner also co-produced 2002’s “The Game of Their Lives” about the North’s 1966 World Cup soccer team, and 2004’s “A State of Mind” about two gymnasts preparing for Pyongyang’s mass games, a nationalistic spectacle of gymnastics.

The film’s rights have been sold to Korea and Japan, said co-producer Paul Yi, who added that he hoped the film would play at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States.

A spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea said by telephone that he was unfamiliar with Mr. Dresnok’s case, but expected that if he ever left the North, he would be treated like Mr. Jenkins was.

In 2004, Mr. Jenkins was court-martialed but set free after 30 days of confinement, on the basis that he had suffered enough.

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