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[MOVIE REVIEW] Film reveals U.S. defector's life in Pyongyang

2007/08/23 | Permalink | Source

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No news is good news -- such was true for those who knew James Joseph Dresnok in the early 1960s when he was struggling with myriad personal problems. Unity recently, nothing was known about how the U.S. citizen who defected to North Korea has been doing.

In watching "Crossing the Line", a film focusing on Dresnok, one cannot help but wonder how the defector has survived the in world's most secretive, militaristic, and oppressive regime, especially given that his former country is one North Koreans identify as an evil empire threatening its sovereignty.

The documentary film, directed by Daniel Gordon, begins with Dresnok's rather low-profile defection to the North when the communist nation was the farthest frontier of the Cold War. As with his previous documentaries on North Korea -- "The Game of Their Lives" (2002) and "A State of Mind" (2004) -- Gordon never fails to illuminatingly sketch the Korean peninsula's current situation; he offers rare glimpses of North Koreans parading in razor-sharp precision and views of Pyongyang's unique cityscape that mystifies not only foreigners but also South Koreans.

The narrator reminds the audience that the Korean War left about 4 million people dead with many more people wounded, and that no peace treaty has yet been signed between the two Koreas. North Korean society is ruled by one man, one party and one army. The resulting impression is that North Korean is not an ideal place to lead a happy life: so why in the world did American soldiers like Dresnok cross the dangerous DMZ into the communist North? Dresnok, it turns out, has very few, if any, memories of his childhood. He was abandoned by his father, and he and his younger brother spent much of their childhood in a foster home, a situation he labels "hell".

After years of a virtual orphanage, Dresnok joined the army and met a woman whom he eventually married, but the marriage did not last long. While he served in Germany for two years, his first wife came to have a lover, and when he returned, he faced a marriage falling apart. A divorce left Dresnok hopeless and bitter; he chose to re-enlist in the army, a decision that brought him to South Korea.

One day, he went out to a village to meet a Korean girl who he described was "good and nice-looking", but his superior did not give him permission for the visit. So he forged the requisite pass and went out anyway, spending a day outside the barracks. When he returned, his boss was understandably angry and even considered sending him to the court martial. They talked in the morning and the boss asked him to come back to the office in the afternoon, but Dresnok did not return. Instead, he crossed the heavily fortified border and went to the North Korean patrol post, becoming one of a handful of American defectors to North Korea.

While offering the explanations for his defection, the film inadvertently hits a sore spot for both Koreans and Americans. Several photos show American soldiers raucously spending time with Korean girls in a bar. Former American soldiers explain that at the time, every American army base attracted Korean women targeting the soldiers' dollars. VD was also prevalent, they say.

Once Dresnok gave up the routine south of DMZ, he began something he never expected he would do in his life -- to act. All four American GI defectors, including Dresnok, were recruited to appear in North Korean propaganda films, bringing them instant stardom in the reclusive country where any foreigner is noticed by everybody on the street.

The American defectors-turned-actors were initially uneasy about their value in the communist country, but soon accepted their instant fame. However, the relationships among the American defectors did not bode well. The film particularly focuses on the thorny relations between Dresnok and his fellow defector Charles Robert Jenkins.

On camera, Dresnok does not hide his contempt and hatred of Jenkins, who looks quite older than his real age, and was married to a Japanese woman kidnapped by the North Koreans. But it remains uncertain whether Dresnok's ranting about Jenkins should be taken at face value, because Dresnok himself is depicted as rather unreliable at times.

What is reliable is that he seems more or less content with his life in North Korea. He stresses he received his daily ration of 800 grams of rice even during the tortuous period known as the "Arduous March", a great famine that starved millions of North Koreans to death.

He married a European woman and has two grown-up sons, who are now attending the prestigious Foreign Language University in Pyongyang. Several years ago, he married again, and now has a young boy. Although the pair looks like a grandfather and his grandson, the family seems happy -- at least to a curious outsider.

He tells the film crew that if he had lived in the United States, he would not have been able to send his kids to college. After all, he has mostly the same values as other working-class Americans, including the desire to nurture his family in the hopes that his children might lead a better life.

The documentary's chief strength is based on director Gordon's enviable access to North Koreans on the street and their residential areas, something that is not granted to South Korean media. But throughout the film the camera focuses on Dresnok, a foreigner who receives special favors. This leaves the audience haunted with yet another question: how do ordinary North Koreans get by?

By Yang Sung-jin

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