Joe Dresnok in North Korea
Although somewhat lacking in political analysis, the two documentaries by British director Daniel Gordon titled “Crossing the Line” and “A State of Mind” are must-see’s for anybody with the least bit of curiosity about one of the most taboo subjects in the West–North Korea, which is more subject to Orwellian “hate minutes” than any nation on earth.
“Crossing the Line,” which premieres at Cinema Village in New York on August 8th, tells the story of James Joseph Dresnok (he refers to himself as Joe Dresnok), the last American GI defector still living in North Korea. He walked across the DMZ in 1962 and became a solid citizen of a diehard Stalinist state. Dresnok is from a broken home in the South and joined the army like so many other such youths to stay out of trouble. He has retained the “good old boy” mannerisms of his youth but also speaks fluent Korean and sings the praises of Communism. For Dresnok, the system is just a more extreme version of the welfare state. During his entire time in North Korea, he has never missed a meal–so he informs his interviewers.
Three other soldiers defected around the same time, all with the same kind of hard-scrabble, working-class backgrounds. When you hear their story, you can almost accept the official version on Lee Harvey Oswald, namely that he defected to the USSR out of political convictions. With Dresnok, the political convictions had nothing to do with Marxism. He was just sick and tired of authority. With a rebellious–but not politically so–streak, he was facing his second court martial for going on leave without permission and possible jail time. He told himself that North Korea couldn’t be much worse than what he was facing.
As it turned out, North Korea had many of the same authoritarian aspects of army life. An older and wiser Joe Dresnok tells his interviewers that all institutions are the same. You just have to learn to live within them. One suspects that if he had grown older in the U.S., he’d never had shown the slightest interest in Communism. Dresnok’s claim to fame in North Korea, along with the other three defectors, is that he was cast in a villainous role in the North Korean propaganda film “Unsung Heroes”.
Charles Robert Jenkins, one of the other defectors, eventually became Dresnok’s nemesis. He was married to a Japanese woman, who was allegedly kidnapped by the North Koreans in order to teach their spies Japanese language and customs. After she returned to Japan in 2002, he left North Korea to join her. Once free from North Korean control, he gave the sort of sensationalistic testimonials that is par for the course. You know the drill. The North Koreans boil Christians in oil; Kim Jong-il drinks $1000 bottles of cognac 3 nights a week, etc. He also accused Dresnok of beating him up on a daily basis. Whatever one might think of Dresnok, he certainly doesn’t give the impression of being a sadist. As for Jenkins, he only received 30 days for the crimes of desertion and aiding the enemy, which shows how evenhanded the U.S. can be with those returning to the True Faith.
Training for the Mass Games
Made in 2004, “A State of Mind” (available from Netflix, etc.) takes you inside the homes of two young female gymnasts who participate in North Korea’s “Mass Games”, a kind of throwback to the huge May Day celebrations presided over by Joseph Stalin. In North Korea, this takes the form of thousands of young gymnasts dressed in colorful costumes performing in a huge Pyongyang Arena. For the two girls, getting a chance to perform before Kim Jong-il is the greatest honor in the world.
One girl is from a working-class family, the other from an “intellectual class” family–her father teaches physics on a college level. In North Korea, official Marxist theory posits 3 major classes: workers, intellectuals and peasants. Whatever else you want to say, the intellectuals are certainly not privileged. Both families live in Soviet-style apartment buildings, with as many as 8 people crowded into 4 rooms. They openly admit that life is hard, but feel that things are improving nowadays. There is, of course, something to be said for this, since I haven’t heard a word about North Koreans eating tree bark for a few years now. Since I often pick up the NY Post for the sports pages and listen to Rush Limbaugh for laughs, I surely would have noticed if this point had been made.
“A State of Mind” is a thoroughly engaging film and will remind you of “Hoop Dreams” and many other sports documentaries. Indeed, director Daniel Gordon is something of a specialist in the field, also having made the 2002 “Game of their Lives”, about how North Korea upset Italy in the 1966 World Cup.
To Gordon’s credit, he is simply not interested in making propaganda one way or the other. He is more interested in people than in ideas. For those of us who have had anti-Communist propaganda stuffed down our throats for the past 50 years, his documentaries are a refreshing change of pace.