Friday, January 26, 2007

Watch for British documentary on US defector to North Korea

In the 1960s four US soldiers separately defected to North Korea, and were little heard from again. Now one - the last known former American GI left in the country - has spoken for the first time to British documentary-makers.

James Dresnok is something of a celebrity around the North Korean capital Pyongyang, his home for the last 44 years. Unmissable thanks to his 6ft 5in height and bulky frame, the 64-year-old has appeared in North Korean films, taught English at university and been a propaganda hero for the Communist nation.

"I have never regretted coming to [North Korea]. I feel at home," he says, in the documentary Crossing the Line, which premiered at the US Sundance Film Festival on Monday.

James Dresnok was a 21-year-old army private when he decided to leave his post in South Korea one August afternoon in 1962 to cross into the North. Three months earlier, Private Larry Abshier had become the first known US soldier to defect to the North, while patrolling the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. In the three years that followed, Specialist Jerry Parrish and Sergeant Charles Jenkins would follow Abshier and Dresnok across the border.

A joint bid for asylum at the Soviet embassy in 1966 was rejected and the four were forced to undergo intense re-education, which included learning North Korea's official Juche ideology.
It was at that point, Mr Dresnok says, that he decided he would try to fit in. "Man is the master of his life, and little by little I came to understand the Korean people," he said.

UK documentary-maker Daniel Gordon and his Beijing-based co-producer Nick Bonner touch on the four defectors, but the focus is undoubtedly on James Dresnok who is filmed fishing, going to a restaurant, the opera and having a medical check-up.

"I found him a fascinating guy," Daniel Gordon says. "He has had such a unique experience of life. ... It is hard to understand from our perspective why an American soldier would choose to make his life in arguably the biggest US-hating nation on earth."

Mr Dresnok admits he lives a privileged life by North Korean standards, confessing that he got rice rations during the deadly famines of the late 1990s while others were starving. "The government is going to take care of me until my dying day," he tells the documentary team.

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