James Dresnok: The Happiest Foreigner In An Unhappy Place

A lot of people in today’s world want to live and retire in a country other than their own. They feel like they need to escape, need to have a change of pace, or they simply want to retire adventurously. Living abroad can teach you many things in life, with top destinations like Japan, Australia and the UK being the most enjoyable to settle down in. But Joseph James Dresnok decided to make one of the biggest decisions in his life and defect to North Korea. 

Joseph James Dresnok, or “Joe” for short, was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1941. He had a bit of a troubled childhood and moved around after his parents divorced. Eventually, he was placed in a foster home and he dropped out of high school, got married, and enlisted in the US Army. Joe’s first assignment was in West Germany. He was stationed there for two years before returning home. Joe was then assigned to South Korea in a base along the DMZ in the early 1960s. During this time, the world was engulfed in Beatle Mania, Kennedy was President, The Korean War was fresh in everyone’s mind, and the Cold War was just getting hot. This was a crucial time in American history, and it was the last era of America Dresnok would ever lay eyes on.

Joe decided one day to go out to the “Ville,” a popular district famous for brothels in nearby Uiejongbu, South Korea. He did so without his commander’s permission and forged a signature on the bottom of a leave form to create the illusion of having permission. After returning to base he was facing court martial and a possible dishonorable discharge which would follow him for the rest of his life. He didn’t want to face his court martial, so on August 15th 1962, he ran across a minefield into North Korean territory during lunch. Dresnok stated, “I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything. I was a goon. There was only one place to go.” His new life was underway, whether he liked it or not.

“Yes I was afraid, Am I gonna live or die? And when I stepped into the minefield and I seen’t it with my own eyes, I started sweating, I crossed over, looking for my new life,” Dresnkok said as he was reminiscing on the day of his defection during an interview. As he was approaching the DMZ, which was nothing more than a picket fence during this time, a North Korean soldier, Ri Yong Muk, was ordered to assume a battle position. They heard a large figure coming towards them. It was Dresnok, who had officially crossed. Muk’s platoon swiftly swarmed Dresnok. Muk stated in an interview that “I took my bayonet and thought about stabbing him. Because I lost both my parents to the American bastards, I wanted to kill him.” But, his commander decided to just detain him, and threw him on a train straight to the heart of North Korea, PyongYang.

Dresnok was officially a POW in a country that completely despised America with everything that they had. Dresnok was immediately interrogated. Although he wasn’t in South Korea long enough to give a lot of intel, he did share the location of a few buildings on a map laid out between him and the interrogator. The interrogation lasted a long time and, finally, they believed Dresnok– he really wasn’t in the South long enough to give intel on things such as nuclear weapons. He was deemed pretty useless as far as intelligence goes.

Everyone knows about the Cold War; America was bent on promoting capitalism, while the Soviet Union was trying to spread its ideals as fast as they possibly could. During this time, Kim Il Sung was the president of North Korea and was revered to as a god by his people. He was considered a revolutionary and a war hero. He was determined to take back the whole peninsula, even if it meant a second Korean War. He went on to state that the US was illegally occupying South Korea and must leave immediately. Americans like Dresnok were the sworn enemies of the Korean people. During this time, Kim Il Sung’s presence was fresh. The people were extremely united. Everyone had one common thought, and that the Americans were evil bastards and would pay for what they did. This message was displayed prominently all throughout Pyong Yang. From photos, to murals, to posters and rallies. One thing was very clear: Dresnok had entered a different dimension.

Dresnok wasn’t the only American soldier who crossed over into NK soil at this time. Larry Abshier, whom defected over a court martial involving marijuana, defected in May of the same year. He had some of the same feelings as Dresnok did. He was tired of army life as well, and he didn’t want to face punishment. Abshier’s defection was the first US citizen defection since the Korean War ended. The two immediately became propaganda icons. Both achieved fame through being displayed as Americans who hated America just as much as the North Korean people did. Over the next few months, they were joined by two more; Jerry Perrish and Charles Jenkins.

A ceremony was held after they had arrived and all of them received prizes of money, food rations, and clothes for their “patriotism” toward North Korea. At this point, they may or may not be regretting their decision to defect. It wouldn’t matter, what they did couldn’t be reversed. Meanwhile, the US was becoming very sensitive towards these defections. It’s something that they tried to keep quiet, but couldn’t just sweep under the rug. On the flip side, the defectors were precious gifts that North Korea proudly displayed as mascots, encouraging more US soldiers to defect. Their only options were to be pieces of propaganda or to somehow make it back on US soil where they would meet a prison sentence for desertion. As they were seen as tools for propaganda, Dresknok and his comrades were still called out as “American Bastards”. That made Dresnok so uncomfortable that he made his first attempt to defect and get out of North Korea. 

By 1966, Dresnok regretted his decision and the 4 defectors attempted to escape North Korea by seeking asylum at a Soviet Embassy. If they made it to Russia, they would still be technically within the Iron Curtain, but this point Russia was a much freer country than North Korea. Dresnok made it to the Soviet Embassy but was swiftly rejected and detained by the North Korean authorities. They assumed that since the Russians knew they weren’t Korean, that they would accept them and send them to Moscow. Dresnok and the gang were proven wrong and shuttled back to PyongYang with possible trouble waiting for them when they returned. But just the opposite happened. Kim Il Sung said himself that “We will take them along the road with us to communism!” Dresnok wasn’t killed, he was educated even further. 

Dresnok finally made a decision to fully embrace the life he chose living in North Korea. He learned the ideologies, language, culture, and customs. He was educated in every aspect of North Korea. During his education, his involvement in propaganda was brought down to a minimum. Dresnok was stuck in his cramped PyongYang studio apartment and was forced to study at all hours of the days with his minders watching him every step of the way. During his first year, the only thing he was allowed to do was fish and drink with his friends. He was afraid that he outlived his purpose. His fame came to a screeching halt after the incident at the Soviet Embassy and felt that he was going to be swept under the rug and left to rot in North Korea for the rest of life. 

A few months passed and all of the defectors were educated enough to have North Korea citizenships. They were granted work permits, new apartments, and were expected to work to help Kim Il Sung in his conquest for communist revolution. They were expected to work their hardest, pushing their minds and bodies to the limit all for the glory of the revolution. They would go on to work their average jobs until the late 1970s. In the 1970s, Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, who was newly appointed the propaganda director for the ministry of propaganda, was obsessed with film. So obsessed that he saw Dresnok and company as assets to use in his attempt to reinvigorate the North Korean film industry. 

In 1978, the film industry was booming with instant smash hits like Grease and National Lampoon’s Animal House making waves in the box office and across the globe. North Korea had a failing film industry of their own, only cranking out repetitive propaganda films. There were no white actors to play the American antagonists prominently displayed in every NK flick. Until now, North Korean actors would apply white makeup to have “white face” to play as the enemy. Now, the North Koreans had real Americans they could use, and they did. Their work in the film industry would transform them from traitors to national heroes. The first film was titled “Unsung Hero,” and prominently portrayed Dresnok and the defectors as the American enemies. They would go on to make Kim Jong Il proud. 

In 1983 Abshier passed away due to heart failure. The rest of the men had reached hero status in North Korea. Abshier was quietly forgotten. Dresnok finally had the cushy life that was promised to him back in 1962 on the day that he fled. He was finally content. Dresnok had left a life of trouble and bad decisions to a life as a North Korean movie star. He states he’ll live in North Korea for the rest of the life. He doesn’t care about the politics. He knows he’ll never go back, and he doesn’t care. He accepts it.

Years later, he became an English professor at Kim Il Sung University and shaped how North Koreans learned English through conversational lectures instead of a textbook focused curriculum. After teaching, he retired and spent most of the time with his family. He had been married twice since living in North Korea, having 2 kids with his first wife since defecting and 1 kid with his second wife. His whole life was shaped over a dash that lasted a couple meters. As the North Korean Juche Ideal states, “Man, is in control of his own destiny”

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