Why defect to North Korea?

Review of Crossing the Line, Directed by Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner


Crossing the Line is a British documentary about American defectors to North Korea. In 1962, James J. Dresnok, a U.S. Army soldier, defected to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. To my surprise, although the documentary focuses on Dresnok, it also discusses three other U.S. military defectors. Who knew that this kind of stuff happened?

Before you know it, you’re introduced to a cast of “North Koreans” who aren’t ethnically Korean at all. Not only do you have the mixed children of these four Americans—Dresnok’s son looks just like any other American boy, but he’s studying English as a second language—but Dresnok’s first North Korean wife dies and his second North Korean wife is half Tabogan. Another defector marries a Japanese abductee, and a third marries a Lebanese woman. All in North Korea! 

But as a Western audience, our main fascination is with how someone who was exposed to the West could ever begin to accept North Korea as a home. Two of the Americans die in North Korea from health complications and the third eventually defects back to the outside world through Indonesia. This third American, Jenkins, denounces the North Korean regime and goes on a media blitz against the oppression he allegedly witnessed during his stay. Dresnok dismisses Jenkins’s portrayals as complete fabrications.

Dresnok remains loyal to North Korea. He sees the United States as a place where people fend for themselves and there is great disparity; in North Korea, he receives his food rations even in the midst of country-wide famine. One scene shows him with a bottle of Jack Daniels. It seems like Dresnok may be wearing rose-tinted glasses crafted by luxury (at least by North Korean standards) that is not the common experience of the North Korean masses.

Overall, Dresnok is content with his life. That’s the philosophy he espouses. Why ruin a good thing? He ridicules Jenkins for leaving, for which he serves 30 days in prison as punishment for military defection. Dresnok rests assured that the government will continue to feed him until he dies. His son is able to go to college, unlike many American kids whose parents can’t afford the tuition.

What concerned me most was Dresnok’s lack of concern about the philosophical underpinnings of North Korean society and the authoritarian nature of the regime. His focus is selfishly pragmatic—is he being fed? Is he treated well? Only at one point in the film does he refer to his study of Juche, the worship of Kim Jong Il. But that’s it. He is myopically satisfied with his stomach full and his children educated.

The cross of Christ deposes this frightening logic that cannot lead to anything other than an unassuming nihilism. The pleasures of this world are worth sacrificing for the joy set before us, for the hope Christ promised. We may not defect to North Korea, but we oftentimes disregard godly obedience for fleeting passions.

In some ways, it makes sense from a worldly perspective to seek comfort and live a relatively enjoyable life. This reminds me of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. In the first two chapters of the book, the Teacher tears down any pretension of worth in this world. All is vanity! So eat, drink, and be merry. But what if we were made for something greater?

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