The American Defector Who Became North Korea's John Wayne

Jax Hudur

On the noonday of August 15th, 1962, while American troops stationed in Korea’s demilitarized zone (also known as the DMZ) were lunching, a 21-year-old American soldier walked through a minefield and crossed on the other side. His name was private first-class James Joseph Dresnok.

While it’s shocking to imagine that a United States service member would defect to North Korea of all places, Private Dresnok’s life was already in tatters way before the idea of defecting hatched in his mind. He spent much of his childhood running away from abusive foster homes, and when he was old enough to conscript, the Army offered him the only escape out of the life he thought was misery.

However, life in the Army wasn’t as alluring as he thought. The Army sent him to West Germany for two years, but when he returned and found out that his wife had left him for another man, Dresnok turned to the only institution he knew he could turn to, the Army. So he reenlisted, and the Army shipped him off to South Korea.

James Dresnok reminiscing of life before defection, said, “I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage my military life, everything. I was finished. There’s only one place to go,” Dresnok told the filmmakers. “On August 15th, at noon in broad daylight when everybody was eating lunch, I hit the road. Yes, I was afraid. Am I gonna live or die? And when I stepped into the minefield and I seen it with my own eyes, I started sweating. I crossed over, looking for my new life.”

Stressed and reeling from the pain of being walked out on, he took solace in the nightlife. As a result, he was caught leaving the base without permission in one of his womanizing night outs. However, when he found out that his Army service was under the threat of a court-martial, with nothing to lose and no one to go back to, he turned to his enemies, the North Koreans.

Life in the new homeland

As expected, the Koreans had to ensure that his defection was genuine. After all, it was at the height of the cold war, and the fear of spies and saboteurs was real. Nonetheless, the North Koreans believed him.

However, Dresnok’s defection was a golden opportunity for the North Koreans. Before them was a young man in his prime who deserted capitalist America for Communist North Korea. Unless things were so bad in America, their soldiers wouldn’t voluntarily defect was the break the North Koreans needed to assuage the few in their country who doubted their country’s propaganda. As a result, the North Koreans used Dresnok to feature in their propaganda filmsagainst their people and the West as he played the roles of a mean if not a brutal American commander.

Sons of US defector to North Korea James Dresnok speak out after father's death

No longer the first-class Private who walked on minefields and risked his life because of hopelessness, James Dresnok became an overnight sensation in North Korea. He featured in Korean movies, partied, and rubbed shoulders with the country’s elite. He was so valuable to the North Koreans that they even overlooked his apparent defection when he escaped to the Soviet Union embassy and asked them for asylum (They returned him to the North Koreans). This was because the North Koreans, besides needing him for their propaganda films and teaching English, they had other plans for him. Moreover, Dresnok being a Caucasian, his children could make the perfect spy recruits as no one would suspect a Caucasian person of being a North Korean spy.

With his newfound fame and acceptance, James Dresnok settled down and married Doina Bumbea, an art student who is believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents while studying in Italy. He had two sons with her before her premature death. He remarried and got another son from his second marriage.

James Dresnok was the last surviving American defector when he died in November 2016, having lived to a ripe old age. Besides being the communist dictatorship’s mouthpiece, James Dresnok also beat other American defectors when they got out of line. However, his story is remarkable because, unlike other defectors, James Dresnok completely embraced his new country.

His surviving children still live in North Korea, where they continue their father’s legacy as the regime’s tools of propaganda.

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I write about history, politics and true crime. Not to mention anything else that takes my fancy or newsworthy. "No special talents. Only passionately curious." Albert Einstein


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