Crossing the Line

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The story of an American who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, Crossing the Line is yet another good documentary that I’ve discovered this winter. James Joseph Dresnok tells the story of his life with added interviews with a friend from his youth and men in the army who worked with him. An orphan with little success in school, Dresnok joined the army when he turned 17. He married before he left for Germany. Upon his return from Germany, he discovered his wife was unfaithful and wanted a divorce.

The disappointment stung and compelled him to re-enlist. Then he was sent to South Korea to patrol the DMZ in the 1960s. After forging a pass for a night out, Dresnok ran across the DMZ into North Korea to avoid disciplinary action. This impetuous move was in character with a man who ran away from foster homes and bad situations time after time.

The North Koreans capitalized on this defection and three others that soon followed by using Dresnok and other American soldiers in propoganda. They appeared on the covers of magazines and eventually starred in films playing American villians.

We hear so little about North Korea and these defections were hushed by the U.S. army that was embarrassed that American soldiers would find life in the backward hermit kingdom an option at all. I wouldn’t trade places with Dresnok, but I do see that he and his family have had a unique life.  He’s been well taken care of even after attempting to defect to Russia when life in North Korea got burdensome.  He and his fellow Americans all married and it seemed the government arranged for that. Dresnok first married a woman who refused to tell him her nationality for decades. (It’s believed she was kidnapped from Romania.) After his first wife’s death, he married a woman whose mother was North Korean and whose father was an African diplomat.

Dresnok’s learned Korean and has adapted to life in Pyongyang quite well. It’s a strange life, but has worked out for him. Without much education and with a penchant for flouting American rules, he would have struggled in the US. In North Korea he has a decent apartment, a seemingly nice family life, and the regard of North Koreans around him.

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