In May 2004, Koryo Tours’ founder Nicholas Bonner was leading a tour in Pyongyang when the Korean film company asked him to accompany them for a meeting. He was told he would be meeting 'someone' he and film director Dan Gordon had wanted to meet for quite sometime. On arrival at the film office a tall man in a dark Korean suit entered the room and, in a Virginian drawl, said to Nicholas, 'I hear you want to ask me some questions… so go ahead'.
This meeting between Nicholas and James Joseph (Joe) Dresnok marked the start of the documentary 'Crossing the Line' (VeryMuchSo Productions/Koryo Tours) — the first time the American defectors and their families were shown to the outside world.
In 1962, Dresnok became the 2nd American defector living in North Korea when, at noon in broad daylight, he sprinted across a minefield in the DMZ into North Korean territory. He went on to appear in North Korean films, playing the role of the American baddy. His most notable appearance was in the 20-part TV series 'Nameless Heroes', where he played 'Arthur', an evil Yankee colonel. This made him famous in Pyongyang, where people on the street would often stop and stare at 'Arthur'.
In 2000, the US State Department didn’t even know if Joe Dresnok and the three other defectors were still alive, although it was known they had appeared in Korean films. No foreigner in North Korea had ever seen him, let alone what they were doing.
Nicholas first heard about him in Pyongyang when he and Dan Gordon were making their first two documentary films in North Korea ('The Game of their Lives' and 'A State of Mind' in 2002 and 2004, respectively). When they asked their Korean counterparts about Dresnok, they spoke about him fondly as having 'submarine feet' and joked about how people couldn’t understand him when he spoke English because his Virginian accent was so thick. It turns out he had worked as a teacher of English at one of Pyongyang's major universities.
For Nicholas Bonner, that first meeting was like meeting Elvis: where do you even start? At 6'5", Joe Dresnok was literally larger than life. It was immediately clear that he was either an incredible character or an incredible actor.
Once it became apparent that a documentary was on the table, Nicholas urged filmmaker and friend Dan Gordon to get himself to Pyongyang pronto. A month later, as the project got underway, Sergeant Jenkins also made an appearance. He would leave the DPRK months later for Japan.
Dresnok, however, had no wish to return to the US. During filming he was shown recent footage of his hometown, during which he barely blinked. To him all the States held was bad memories of an unhappy childhood and a heart-breaking divorce. It was clear upon meeting his boys, Ted and James Jr., that his interests lay in their futures and not on any long-awaited return to the country of his birth. Speaking about his boys was one of the very few occasions where he would get emotional, as he wanted for them what every parent wants: to have better lives than the difficult one he had had.
A few days ago, Dresnok’s sons appeared on North Korean news to confirm the information that their father died of a stroke last November. The news has since been reported widely all around the world.
An unpleasant man who betrayed his country or a human being who had a rough start and made the best of what he had: Joe Dresnok was portrayed in both lights during his life. Much of that life remains a mystery and will continue to do so until further information appears.