James Joseph Dresnok

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James Joseph Dresnok
Born 1941 (age 73–74)
Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
Allegiance  United States (1958–1962)
 North Korea (1962–present)
Service/branch  United States Army (1958–1962)
Years of service 1958–1962 (defected)
Rank Army-USA-OR-03-2014.svg Private first class
Other work Teacher, actor, translator.

James Joseph Dresnok (born 1941) is an American defector to North Korea, one of six American soldiers to defect after the Korean War.

After defecting, Dresnok worked as an actor and an English teacher in Pyongyang. He was featured on the CBS magazine program 60 Minutes on January 28, 2007, as the last United States defector alive in North Korea, and was the subject of a documentary film entitled Crossing the Line.

He calls himself Joe Dresnok and has been called both James Dresnok[1][2][3] and Joe Dresnok in news reports, sometimes both in the same report.[4]

Early life[edit]

Dresnok was born in Richmond, Virginia. His father was Joseph Dresnok I (1917–1978).[5] His parents divorced when he was ten years old, and he was briefly raised by his father in Pennsylvania; his mother and younger brother Joseph Dresnok II never again came into contact with them.[6] Dresnok was placed in a foster home, dropped out of high school, and joined the Army the day after his 17th birthday.



Dresnok's first military service was two years in West Germany. After returning to the United States to find that his wife had left him for another man, he reenlisted and was sent to South Korea. He was a Private First Class with a U.S. Army unit along the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in the early 1960s. Soon after his arrival, he found himself facing a court martial for forging signatures on paperwork that gave him permission to leave base and which, ultimately, led to his going AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave).[4]

Unwilling to face punishment, on August 15, 1962, while his fellow soldiers were eating lunch, he ran across a minefield in broad daylight into North Korean territory, where he was quickly apprehended by North Korean soldiers. Dresnok was taken by train to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and interrogated.[4]

Life in North Korea[edit]

"I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything. I was a goon.[7] There's only one place to go," Dresnok said in an interview. "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.”[4]

Dresnok met Larry Allen Abshier, another American defector, soon after his arrival. Eventually there were four of them: Abshier, Jerry Parrish, Charles Robert Jenkins, and Dresnok. The men lived together and participated in several propaganda efforts on behalf of the North Korean government. They appeared on magazine covers and used loudspeakers to try to persuade more American soldiers at the border to defect. But they did not wish to remain in North Korea indefinitely at first. In 1966, the four enthusiastic men tried to leave North Korea by seeking asylum at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, but the embassy immediately turned them over to North Korean authorities.[4] After that, Dresnok decided to settle in North Korea.

Beginning in 1978, he was cast in several North Korean films, including the 20-part series Unsung Heroes (as an American villain), and became a celebrity in the country as a result. He is called "Artie" by his Korean friends, after the character he played in the series. He also translated some of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s writings into English.[4][8]

According to Jenkins's book The Reluctant Communist, Dresnok was something of a bully, betraying the other Americans' confidences to the North Koreans, and enthusiastically beat up Jenkins 43 or more times on the orders of their Korean handlers.[9] In the documentary Crossing the Line, Dresnok vehemently denies these allegations.

Dresnock asserts that, during the North Korean famines of the 1990s, he was always given his full food ration by the government. While talking about the North Korean famines of the 1990’s, he says that despite the hundreds of thousands who died, the North Koreans never cut his rations. “Why? Why do they let their own people starve to death to feed an American?," he asks. “The Great Leader has given us a special solicitude. The government is going to take care of me until my dying day.”[10]

Personal life[edit]

In the United States[edit]

In Crossing the Line Dresnok explains that after marrying an American woman at a young age, he was deployed in West Germany for two years while she remained in the U.S. He prided himself on "truly loving her and being loyal to her". But when he returned, he found she was already in another relationship. He was quoted as saying, "The good thing was that she did not get pregnant by me because I had promised that I would never abandon my children."

In North Korea[edit]

He has been married twice more since defecting to North Korea. The first was to a Romanian woman, Doina Bumbea (referred to as "Dona" in Jenkins's autobiography), with whom he had two sons, Theodore "Ted" Ricardo Dresnok and James Gabriel Dresnok. Bumbea supposedly worked at the Romanian Embassy, but some accounts claim she never worked there and was an abductee taken by the North Korean secret service.[11][12]

Jenkins's book also mentions this, but claims she was abducted to be the wife of one of the American deserters. The Romanian Foreign Office's website says Romania asked North Korea in 2007 to explain Bumbea's abduction but did not receive an answer.[13][14] Bumbea died of lung cancer.

After Bumbea's death, Dresnok married his third wife, the daughter of a North Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. They had a son in 2001. The family lives in a small apartment in Pyongyang, provided along with a monthly stipend by the North Korean government. Dresnok is in failing health, with a bad heart and liver (Dresnok describes his liver as "full of fat"), which he attributes to smoking and drinking too much.[4]

His elder son from his second marriage, James Dresnok, was a student at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, where his father taught English in the 1980s. James speaks English with a Korean accent and considers himself Korean but reportedly does not wish to marry a Korean woman. James intends to enter the diplomatic service.[4]

Dresnok has stated that he intends to spend the rest of his life in North Korea, and that no amount of money could entice him back to the West. Now retired, Dresnok occasionally gives lectures in North Korea and goes fishing “just to pass the time.”[4] He may sporadically tweet under the handle @JamesDresnok -- first posting back in September 2009 -- but the authenticity of the account could not be verified.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

  • He was also featured in "An American in North Korea", a 2007 segment on 60 Minutes by Robert G. Anderson and Casey Morgan.[4]


See also[edit]

Other defectors to North Korea[edit]


  1. ^ Frederick, Jim; “In from the Cold”, Time (magazine), November 4, 2004. Accessed January 28, 2007.
  2. ^ Russell, Mark (October 19, 2006), An American in North Korea, Pledging Allegiance to the Great Leader, New York Times, retrieved January 28, 2007 
  3. ^ Full Cast and Crew for Crossing the Line, IMDb profile. Accessed January 28, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Anderson, Robert G.; Morgan, Casey (January 28, 2007). "An American in North Korea.". 60 Minutes. Retrieved 2007-08-21. 
  5. ^ Joseph Dresnok I (1917–1978) was born on February 3, 1917 and died in March 1978 according to the Social Security Death Index
  6. ^ Man Hopes His Brother Alive; Thursday, January 18, 1996
  7. ^ The Reluctant communist, page 64
  8. ^ a b c Spiller, Penny (2007-01-23). "Last US defector in North Korea". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-05-01. 
  9. ^ Charles Robert Jenkins, The Reluctant communist, page 64
  10. ^ http://http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/19/movies/19cros.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0
  11. ^ “Romanian Woman Kidnapped by N.Korea in 1978”, The Chosun Ilbo, March 22, 2007. Accessed November 13, 2010.
  12. ^ “Romanian brother of Pyongyang abductee visits”, The Japan Times, April 21, 2007. Accessed November 13, 2010.
  13. ^ Romanian Foreign Office
  14. ^ Realitatea
  15. ^ "Is An American Defector Tweeting From Pyongyang?". www.nknews.org. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  16. ^ World Documentary Competition, “Crossing the Line” (2006) 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Accessed January 28, 2007.

External links[edit]