NEAL CONAN, host:
Right now, a new documentary about a little known American soldier turned semi-celebrity in North Korea. James Joseph Dresnok enlisted in the United States Army when he was 17, in part to escape a broken home and lousy job prospects. He re-upped after his marriage back home in Virginia failed.
And then, while on tour in South Korea in 1962, he dodged a disciplinary hearing by picking his way through the mine fields of Korea's DMZ and defected to the communist North. For him, it was a change for the better.
In this excerpt from the film, Joe celebrates the fact that his son attends a prestigious college in North Korea.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Crossing the Line")
Mr. JOSEPH JAMES DRESNOK: I take great pride in having my son in college, because I know if I was in America - I don't believe that if I was a worker I could afford it. And everyone dreams, oh, if I could only, only send my children to college and have them develop better than me. And this has been solved.
CONAN: The voice of Joseph Dresnok.
If you have questions about the last American defector in North Korea, about making movies in North Korea, or about selling movies at Sundance: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
Filmmakers Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner tell Joseph Dresnok's story in the documentary "Crossing the Line." It premiers at Sundance later today. They join us now from the studios of member station KPCW in Park City. Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. DANIEL GORDON (Director/Producer, "Crossing the Line"): Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Mr. NICHOLAS BONNER (Producer, "Crossing the Line"): Good afternoon.
CONAN: And Daniel, let me begin with you. What led you to this story?
Mr. GORDON: This is actually our third film in North Korea. We started as sort of virgin filmmakers back in 2001. We went into North Korea to find the remaining football players, soccer players, from 1966 for a feature doc that we made called "Game of Their Lives." And then we spent nine months filming another two schoolgirls who were gymnasts for "A State of Mind." And then this is our third film.
And when we were doing the first two films we heard these stories that, yeah, there were Americans actually living in North Korea, which were just too fantastic to be true, and certainly in our feature film would be impossible to make because it just wouldn't be believable.
So we actually started making inquiries about, you know, was it true that Americans were there and if so was it possible to film them. And two and a half years or so of sort of hard work and going back and forth with the various authorities in North Korea and there we were; we were in a room with Joe Dresnok, the last defector.
CONAN: The last defector, and a very strange man.
Mr. GORDON: Yes, you could describe him as a very strange man. He certainly - it's absolutely the surreal day of my life, being in North Korea with Nick. And then Nick's been into North Korea over a hundred times over a period of 13 years. I've been 20 times over a period of six.
And to be in North Korea in a building that we know very well - it's the - the company that we work with in North Korea, it's their headquarters - and suddenly this guy comes in and he's enormous. He's six foot five. He weighs two hundred fifty pounds, something like that. He's huge. He's got a Kim Il Sung badge on and he's wearing North Korean garb. And it's just a really, really surreal moment for both of us.
Mr. BONNER: I think if Elvis Presley had walked in we'd have been less surprised.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, in an odd way he walks out of a time warp. That clip of him saying how proud he was that his son would have gone on to college and that as a worker in America he couldn't have possibly imagined that happening for him in this country, that speaks volumes.
Mr. GORDON: Absolutely. The amazing thing about him is that - I mean he is, in the nicest possible way to Joe, he's a relic. He left America in 1962, and really the last time he was there regularly was 1959. So his accent and his dialect and his use in vocabulary is from a 1950s American, and without any external influences.
The only English he's spoken to since then is by and large been with North Koreans who are able to speak English to him.
Mr. GORDON: And elements like sort of landing on the moon, Cuban missile crisis, they all sort of seem to have passed him by. He's got vague recollections, but not very accurate sort of dates or timeframes with that.
CONAN: Well Nick, let me ask you. I mean, there's a point in the movie - you describe it - where there were four defectors in all, all Americans. The highest ranking guy was a sergeant. And these were all after the Korean War, by the way.
And they tried to undefect. They went to the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang in North Korea and applied for political asylum.
Mr. BONNER: Yeah. There's a time when they obviously realized that this isn't for them. This is North Korea - it's a totally alien society. Not only the Asian people. There's a language difficulty, but it's the whole structure.
And they thought maybe they'd fare better in Russia. So they actually were allowed entry into the Russian Embassy. I think the guards there were believing that they were Russian sort of workers, Russian Embassy workers.
And they got there, and lo and behold, Russia said we don't want you. And it was at that time where Joe - the fear was that, of course, that, you know, they'd be taken out and shot. But, in fact, what happened was they were reeducated.
And that is where, in fact, Joe sort of decided this is it. I can't run any further.
Mr. BONNER: I am now in Korea. I will become a Korean.
CONAN: And Daniel Gordon, now that - when you look at Joe, who's been reeducated and hear him spout some of the terminology that he spouts, continually calling the current leader, the dear leader, the previous leader, the great leader. He's been reeducated.
Mr. GORDON: Absolutely. I mean, we sort of looked at it and thought of it as a kind of a conversion. And I think he realized that, you know, he's got a life now. And he can't keep running away from situations.
And he ran away from a particularly bad childhood and got into the Army. He went into the Army, wanted to run away, and got to North Korea and wanted to run from North Korea. And then realizes he can't really run, and decides this is what I'm going to do.
So I think his reeducation has been complete, if you like. But he still retains an independence. And he still - you know, he decides what he does, you know, in his life. And he was absolutely adamant that, you know, there were no questions that were off limits for us as filmmakers.
And that was very important for us. But, you know, he, if you like, controls himself. You know, and he decides where he goes - which at the moment, he's not in the best of health. But he basically just likes to go fishing. And that's kind of his life at the moment.
Mr. BONNER: He's got a nagging wife. He's got - the greatest thing I think about the film is that you start seeing that, you know, in one side, yes. You know, here's the man who's been under the system, but still retains his incredible individuality.
And he's a character. I mean, you would - you know, if you downright both said that if, you know, he wasn't in North Korea, if he hadn't defected, he'd be in Virginia, you know, in your local bar, probably Republican, and sitting there and again believing a story if he caught a fish, it would be a bloody big fish he'd catch.
He's quite - he's quite a raconteur.
CONAN: And one of the truly bizarre things about all of this is these four men who defect from the United States, and, you know - they turn into movie stars in North Korea.
Mr. BONNER: That - yeah. And that's absolutely what would never have happened to them had they remained in America.
There was a film series called "Nameless Heroes." It was 20 parts long. And it was based in the Korean War. And they needed evil Americans. And what better way than to have four American defectors act in the film, which is exactly what they did to varying degrees of success. There were two that were quite poorly actors. And there were two that kind of got by. And one of them was Dresnok.
And to this day, they are still referred to as their character names from that film, "Nameless Heroes." Wherever we went in North Korea with Dresnok, he's known as Arthur, which is his character name.
And they were depicted as evil Americans. And they kind of made a living out of it and, you know, now are very famous in North Korea from that series.
CONAN: Two of the men have died since before you started making this film. One of the other men, that would be Charles - Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins - has since left North Korea and returned to Japan. And this is part of a very convoluted story.
The women they married - well, certainly, at least one of them had been kidnapped, a Japanese woman kidnapped - part of several who were kidnapped by the North Koreans and taken to North Korea as part of a very strange idea of developing spies that would fit into Japanese society.
And then she is allowed to finally return home to Japan. This becomes a huge cause celebre. He returns and makes his peace with the United States Army, and along the way makes some very damaging allegations against - against Joe Dresnok.
Mr. GORDON: Yeah. And this'll happen while we're filming. When we first started making inquiries about these four men we quickly found out, you know, that there were two alive and two dead.
And then we had no idea about the situation of Jenkins and his wife, because I don't actually think that the people in North Korea knew. And then all the news, you know, came in sort of September, October of 2002.
And a couple years later, when we first met Jenkins, he was still in North Korea. And five weeks later, he was gone. And as this whole story unraveled of, you know, Jenkins leaving North Korea, going to Japan, having to surrender to the U.S. Army, you know, having a court martial, making these allegations against Dresnok - this all happened while we were filming.
And, of course, we were going back and forth. And I'm based in the U.K., and Nick's based in Beijing. And we were going back and forth to North Korea and, you know, into Japan. And we were there for the court martial.
And this whole story was, you know - it was great to sort of capture it, because Dresnok had absolutely no idea that these allegations were being made.
It was obvious they weren't close friends when we interviewed them, and they told us as much. But the ferocity of the allegations against Dresnok, I think he wasn't expecting.
And that comes out in the film. It's a very, very raw moment to the film.
CONAN: Hmm. The film is called, "Crossing the Line." It debuts tonight, is that right, at Sundance?
Mr. GORDON: This afternoon, in a couple of hours.
CONAN: Good luck with it.
Mr. GORDON: Four o'clock. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Four - not that anybody's counting down the minutes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Good luck with it. Appreciate you being on today.
Mr. GORDON: Thanks.
Mr. BONNER: Thanks.
CONAN: We were speaking with Nicholas Bonner, producer of "Crossing the Line," and Daniel Gordon. They both joined us from the studios of member station KPCW in Park City, Utah. And we wanted to thank that station for helping us out in both segments of the program today.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
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