5 Americans Who Defected To North Korea
April 15, 2013
1. JOSEPH WHITE
In 1982, an Army infantryman stationed in South Korea shot the lock of the demilitarized zone gate and slipped into the North. Joseph T. White was quickly put before cameras to denounce the “corruptness” and “hedonism” of the United States, and, if correspondence is to be believed, soon landed a job in North Korea as a schoolteacher, and was very happy there. Two years later, he drowned while fishing, and his body mysteriously disappeared.
On January 4, 1965, Charles Jenkins traded LBJ for Kim Il-Sung (the latter of whom, it should be noted, remains the Eternal President of the world’s only necrocracy). Jenkins, it seems, was pretty worried about being transferred to the hell that was Vietnam, choosing instead the hell that is North Korea. Upon crossing the DMZ and surrendering to North Korean forces, he had hoped for a quick transfer to the Soviet Union. Thirty-nine years later, he finally left North Korea for Japan. He petitioned for a pardon by the United States, but was declined. (This was his second such rejection by a foreign power. In 1966, he slipped into the Soviet embassy and requested asylum. The Soviets would have none of that.) Unsurprisingly, Jenkins did not enjoy his time in North Korea, noting his quarantine in a crowded one-room shanty that lacked running water, the routine beatings, and the requirement to memorize the writings of Kim Il-Sung.
Larry Abshier crossed the border in 1962, and was cast as an Evil American in propaganda films, alongside such fellow defectors as Charles Jenkins. He became, by most accounts, a celebrity in North Korea for his body of work. Like Jenkins and the other defectors, he was forced to memorize vast swaths of Kim Il-Sung’s prose. A fellow American expatriate named James Joseph Dresnok also bullied him relentlessly. (Jenkins described Abshier as “simple” and “easy to take advantage of,” so much so that Abshier was nicknamed Lenny, after the character in Of Mice and Men.) Abshier married a couple of times; the North Korean government provided the women. He died in 1983, and was given a hero’s burial. But not even on a headstone could the North Korean government pass on the opportunity to test the mutability of the past. Abshier’s birthday is incorrect on the marker, and his birthplace is marked as “Pyongyang.”
One year before Larry Abshier arrived, James Dresnok was the new kid on the perfect incarnation of all that a block should be. He was a consummate actor—at least in his roles as Arthur, an Evil American in North Korean propaganda films. Why did he defect to the North? “I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything,” he said. The Army wasn’t too upset about the defection. According to military records, he was “a chronic complainer” who was “lazy” and “defiant to authority.” Since his defection, three government-provided women have married him, and he seems to enjoy his life in the kingdom of the Kims. In what is probably the weirdest fact in this piece, you can follow Dresnok on Twitter.
Pic: taken from NY Times (link)
Jerry Parrish made a dash for unhappier lands on December 6, 1963. His reason is both vague and suggestive: He believed that if he returned home from his Army stint in South Korea, “his father-in-law would kill him.” He spent much of the next two decades in North Korea as a teacher at the state’s Reconnaissance Bureau Foreign Language College, a military school in Pyongyang. He died in 1998 of kidney problems.
After reading this I found out there’s a 2006 documentary about these defectors called Crossing The Line; IMDB link here. I plan on checking that out.