This documentary tells the story of a handful of American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the 1960s, focusing mostly on the only one who is still alive and still in North Korea, James Dresnok. (One other of them is still alive but no longer in North Korea. He gets the second most attention.)
By now Dresnok is in his 60s, obese, and in failing health. The bulk of the movie consists of interviews with him.
He is somewhat open in telling his story, but still there’s that nagging thought that due to the circumstances you can never know how much to believe. It never feels like he’s pressed in the interviews, which to me meant there were a lot of pre-conditions or censorship. Likely either he was unwilling to talk about certain things, or the North Korean government had veto power over what footage the film crew was and was not allowed to take back with them out of the country, or both.
As far as why he defected, if we’re to take what he says at face value (which is a dubious thing to do-see above), it sounds like there was little or no political motive, and in fact it was something of an impulse decision.
He evidently never had a life in the U.S. that amounted to much, that would be hard to give up. He grew up poor and miserable, eventually was orphaned and lived with foster families, went into the military young (giving him plenty of experience with a totalitarian institution), got married and had his heart broken when his wife dumped him when he was overseas, fell for a girl overseas and had his heart broken again, and had enough low level disciplinary issues in the Army to have put himself in a situation where he was facing a possible court-martial.
So (he was stationed in South Korea at the time), rather than face the consequences of the trouble he was in, he simply walked across the border to North Korea. But it seemingly had little or nothing to do with an attraction to North Korea or its political and economic system. It was just a matter of that’s where he happened to be when he decided he’d had enough of his current life and it was time to walk away and try something else.
A few years later, he (and all the other American defectors) decided things weren’t so hot in North Korea after all, so they went to the Soviet embassy to see if they’d be allowed to try another country. But again-though this is a case where we may not be getting the whole story-it doesn’t sound like they’d gone through something traumatic, that they’d had some dramatic change of heart and realized the error of their ways. It was another impulse decision to see if they could find something better.
The Soviets, by the way, rejected their request for asylum and turned them over to the North Korean authorities. That’s a pretty chilling moment in the story, but we don’t get the details of what happened to them. Dresnok speaks of it as if that were the moment he decided to stop his wandering and dissatisfaction and just make the most of where he was, but you have to wonder how and how much he was “encouraged” to change his thinking that way.
Since then he has indeed settled into life in North Korea, marrying twice and raising children, and working at jobs including teaching English at a college, and acting in movies. (Government-made propaganda movies where he and the other defectors all play heavies from America and the West.)
He speaks favorably about the regime, but in mostly a casual way, not in some kind of wild-eyed, fanatical, brainwashed way. He doesn’t speak of his movie roles with relish as a way to get back at the Great Satan America, nor does he give the impression he had any misgivings about being used for propaganda that way. It’s more like, “Oh, it was kind of fun being an actor.”
Mostly his attitude seems to be that no place is perfect, that you always have to adjust to a system wherever you are, and that you can never have the freedom to do whatever you please, so regardless of whether you’re in North Korea or the U.S. Army or a capitalist country or a communist country or somewhere else, you just do what you have to do to get by and you try to have a decent life. And the system in North Korea suits him at least as well as the others he’d experienced, so he might as well settle in and be as happy as he can there.
Nothing much deeper than that, I don’t think.
One interesting tidbit tossed out is that all the defectors married non-Koreans, and some or all of their wives were probably kidnapped from other countries. He doesn’t talk much about that, but another person in the movie offers up the theory that it’s all part of a long-range plot by the North Korean regime to breed non-Koreans who will be molded by the government into spies and sent abroad, since who would ever suspect a non-Korean of spying for North Korea?
Given the fact that the only information we’re going to get from him has to go through whatever filters he and the North Korean government established, I think this documentary even more than most needed other voices besides just that of the central character. Maybe extensive commentary from academic experts on Korean history and the North Korean regime and such, for instance.
But there’s really not much of that. There’s a voiceover by Christian Slater (done in an at times strangely sensationalist tone, such that at first I thought he was spoofing Cold War-era Red Scare rhetoric), but not nearly as much background and informed commentary as I’d have liked to see.
There are hints toward the end that Dresnok may be a darker figure than he now presents himself. The other still-living defector from that group, now that he has left North Korea, insists that Dresnok is a true believer who beat him severely on a regular basis when he was deemed insufficiently obedient to the regime. He claims any of the defectors who were not fully cooperative were tortured. For instance, he alleges he had his U.S. Army tattoo burned off without anesthetic.
But I found him no more believable, and maybe even slightly less so, than Dresnok. Still, it raises further doubts about these stage-managed interviews.
I don’t agree, by the way, with the notion that his defection in and of itself makes Dresnok an altogether odious person. He is denounced by some in the movie (and in some reviews and comments I’ve read) as the lowest of the low kind of traitor, but I don’t really care one way or the other about what he did. I mean, the whole “Love it or leave it” thing is pretty silly, but even if you buy into that, didn’t he take one of the only two choices you deem acceptable? He didn’t like it here, and he left, just like conservatives tauntingly suggest anyone who criticizes them should do. But apparently not only can you not stay here and dissent, the “leave it” option is a phony one that you’re not allowed to take.
I think he’s a sub-mediocrity who made a mostly dumb choice for no particularly deep or well thought out reasons to live his life in one of the more unpleasant places one could pick. The choice of he and the tiny number of others who did likewise is of no great political meaning to me. Its only interest is as a novelty. Overwhelmingly more people seek to escape such regimes to come to the West than make the move in the direction he did. That the number of people going in his direction is non-zero is neither surprising nor significant. What’s relevant is that the number is tiny, which is exactly what one would expect.
The movie was only OK to me. For the reasons I’ve mentioned, you can’t fully trust what you’re seeing. And he’s just not all that interesting a guy. He’s neither a fascinating villain, nor an admirable hero following his dream. He’s a dull-witted fat guy who’s stumbled through life making dubious impulsive choices who happened to have thereby ended up in a situation novel enough that someone deemed it worthy of a documentary.