James Joseph Dresnok

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James Joseph Dresnok
Born 1941 (age 75–76)
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-03-2015.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 in propaganda films, some directed by Kim Jong-il,[1] and as 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.[2]

He calls himself Joe Dresnok and has been called both James Dresnok[3][4][5] and Joe Dresnok in news reports, sometimes both in the same report.[6]

Early life[edit]

Dresnok was born in Richmond, Virginia. His father was Joseph Dresnok I (1917–1978).[7] 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.[8] 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 spent in West Germany. After returning to the United States and finding out 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 the base which, ultimately, led to his going AWOL (Absent Without Leave).[6]

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.[6]

Life in North Korea[edit]

"I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything. I was a goon.[9] 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.”[6]

Dresnok met Larry Allen Abshier, another American defector, soon after his arrival. Eventually there were four of them: Dresnok, Abshier, Jerry Parrish, and Charles Robert Jenkins. 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 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.[6] 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 "Arthur" 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.[6][10]

According to Jenkins's book The Reluctant Communist, Jenkins claimed Dresnok was something of a bully, betraying the other Americans' confidences to the North Koreans, and also claimed Dresnok beat up Jenkins 30 or more times on the orders of their Korean handlers.[11] In the documentary Crossing the Line, Dresnok vehemently denies these allegations.

Dresnok asserts that "because of the sanctions of the US Government and Japanese",[12] during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, he was always given his full food ration by the government. “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.”[13]

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 out that 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 that she never worked there and was in fact an abductee taken by the North Korean secret service.[2][14][15]

Jenkins's book also mentions this, but claims that she was abducted in order to be the wife of one of the American deserters.[2] The Romanian Foreign Office's website says that in 2007 Romania asked North Korea to explain Bumbea's abduction but it did not receive an answer.[16][17] Bumbea reportedly died of lung cancer in 1997.[18]

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.[6]

His younger son from his second marriage, James Dresnok, was a student at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, where his father taught English in the 1980s.[18] James speaks English with a Korean accent and considers himself Korean but reportedly does not wish to marry a Korean woman. James joined the Korean military in 2014, and in 2016 reported he held a rank equivalent to that of Captain in the US Army.[18] Both James Jr. and Ted Dresnok are now married and have children of their own in North Korea.[19]

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.”[6]

In popular culture[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Americans Who Chose To Live in North Korea". BBC. 
  2. ^ a b c d Kirby, Michael Donald; Biserko, Sonja; Darusman, Marzuki (7 February 2014). "Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - A/HRC/25/CRP.1". United Nations Human Rights Council: 306 (Paragraph 973). Archived from the original on Feb 27, 2014. Ms Dona Bumbea disappeared from Italy in 1978 and is believed to have been lured to the DPRK. Ms Bumbea had been studying art in Italy at the time when she met an Italian man claiming to be an art dealer, who convinced her to hold an exhibition in Hong Kong. The two travelled to Pyongyang en-route to Hong Kong at which point the Italian disappeared. Ms Bumbea was kept in the DPRK and “given” to American army deserter Mr Dresnock. Ms Bumbea died in the DPRK and is survived by her two sons, Mr Ricardo Dresnock born in 1981 and Mr James Gabriel Dresnock, born in 1983, both of whom have been seen in several documentaries including “Crossing the line” (2006) and “Aim High in Creation” (2013). Ms Bumbea’s family in Romania has been unable to have any contact with Ms Bumbea’s sons despite their wish to. 
  3. ^ Frederick, Jim; “In from the Cold”, Time (magazine), 4th November 2004. Accessed January 28, 2007.
  4. ^ Russell, Mark (October 19, 2006), An American in North Korea, Pledging Allegiance to the Great Leader, New York Times, retrieved 28 January 2007 
  5. ^ Full Cast and Crew for Crossing the Line, IMDb profile. Accessed 28th January 2007.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Anderson, Robert G.; Morgan, Casey (28 January 2007). "An American in North Korea.". 60 Minutes. Retrieved 2007-08-21. 
  7. ^ Joseph Dresnok I (1917–1978) was born on February 3, 1917 and died in March 1978 according to the Social Security Death Index
  8. ^ Man Hopes His Brother Alive; Thursday 18th January 1996
  9. ^ The Reluctant communist, page 64
  10. ^ a b c Spiller, Penny (2007-01-23). "Last US defector in North Korea". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-05-01. 
  11. ^ Charles Robert Jenkins, The Reluctant communist, page 64
  12. ^ "North Korea Documentary About a US Army soldier who defected to North Korea" on YouTube
  13. ^ "An American in North Korea, Pledging Allegiance to the Great Leader". The New York Times. 19 October 2006. 
  14. ^ “Romanian Woman Kidnapped by N.Korea in 1978”, The Chosun Ilbo, March 22, 2007. Accessed November 13, 2010.
  15. ^ “Romanian brother of Pyongyang abductee visits”, The Japan Times, April 21, 2007. Accessed November 13, 2010.
  16. ^ "Ministerul Afacerilor Externe". mae.ro. 
  17. ^ "Japonia mizează pe ajutorul României, în relaţia cu Phenianul pe tema răpirilor". REALITATEA.NET. 28 December 2015. 
  18. ^ a b c https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/25/the-north-korean-born-sons-of-an-american-defector-speak-in-korean/
  19. ^ Dresnok family
  20. ^ World Documentary Competition, “Crossing the Line” (2006) 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Accessed January 28, 2007.
  21. ^ From 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. at the Internet Movie Database

Other defectors to North Korea[edit]

External links[edit]