Sunday, 3 June 2012

A Defector in the Evil Empire

The Asia Society is putting on its summer film series featuring several movies and documentaries from around the region.

I watched on this afternoon called Crossing The Line that was released in 2006.

In 1962, an American soldier, James Dresnok was sent to guard the demilitarized zone or DMZ in South Korea, but then crossed the border and became a North Korean citizen.

He told his story for the first time on film recalling why he defected to one of the United States' biggest enemies.

The documentary is narrated by Christian Slater and we soon meet Dresnok, well into his 70s. He's a large man, round face and very straight forward.

We soon learn that he grew up in a family that fell apart -- his mother wanted out of the marriage and took him with her where they basically slept in the car every night.

He returned home to find his father had remarried and Dresnok was not welcome into his father's new family.

The boy ended up in a series of foster homes and didn't quite fit in.

Having dropped out of high school, he looked for another "home" where he would be looked after and joined the army a day after his 17th birthday.

However Dresnok didn't like it too much -- he felt the rules were even stricter than the ones in the foster homes and found it difficult at first.

Nevertheless he made the best of it and got married at a young age, thinking he would be able to start fresh again with his own "home".

Then he was posted to West Germany for two years but when he came home his wife told him she'd taken a lover and their marriage was over.

Dresnok was devastated -- he said he never once cheated on his wife during his posting but she couldn't handle his absence at all.

Private James Dresnok
He reenlisted again and this time was posted to South Korea.

The DMZ was a very dangerous place -- the border was marked by flimsy tape and the Americans claimed the North Koreans would create trouble by moving the tape and then start shooting at the US soldiers, claiming they had wandered into North Korean territory.

Being there was literally a war zone and there were casualties.

For Dresnok, he felt his life had no meaning and that there was no way out -- he could live or die and he wouldn't care.

One day he disobeyed orders and visited a Korean woman he was in a relationship with and his superior was ready to court marshall him.

This propelled Dresnok to walk away from his post and enter the DMZ armed with only a shotgun. The area was apparently littered with mines and it was then that the young soldier wondered if he would make it out alive let alone be captured.

When he made it to the other side he was surrounded by North Korean soldiers and was almost killed by them when their superior ordered Dresnok arrested as a prisoner of war.

It turns out not only Dresnok had defected, but three others as well in quick succession. This was a major coup for North Korea and the government used them as propaganda to prove that communism was something Americans thought was good.

They even acted in movies directed by the then young Kim Jong-il. He got them to portray evil American characters who had to be destroyed by the North Koreans.

In the end Dresnok worked hard to fit in, learning Korean and was invited to lecture students periodically in English.

Did he feel used by the government? He doesn't seem to think so. Or was he saying this because he was being filmed in North Korea?

Then there is the interesting topic of marriage. Three of the four men married non-Korean women because North Koreans wanted their race to remain pure. Some of the non-Korean women were allegedly kidnapped and sent to North Korea to mate with these Americans. The fourth man did marry a Korean.

Dresnok today in Pyongyang
As a result Dresnok's two children by his second marriage are blond and brunette. Watching his eldest son James speak English is strange, as he talks with an accent because he was born and raised in North Korea and speaks more Korean than English.

After his wife died from an illness, Dresnok took a third -- a half Korean, half Togolese woman and they have a very young son.

Talk about a Bennetton family in North Korea of all places.

Throughout the documentary, Dresnok is seen smoking and drinking often, which leads to the the final scenes of him visiting his doctor who tells him many times to cut his smoking and drinking as his health is failing, but he continues these habits anyway.

Crossing The Line was a fantastic documentary, not just in the way it was told, but also the various subplots and how the film crew was able to have pretty much free access to make the film in North Korea.

After we viewed the film, one of the researchers present at our screening suggested that because this film would not be shown in North Korea the government didn't seem to care so much and this was the third film the group had done there and had a pretty good track record.

Nonetheless, with such powerful political undertones in the documentary, one would think the government would have completely shut down any possibility of making this film.

But we're glad it was and executed well, revealing complex characters and motivations, historical context and meaning.

Crossing The Line
UK, 2006, 90 minutes
Director: Daniel Gordon
www.


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