Not All Defectors Are Free
The recent death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier has left the American public in a state of shock and sorrow, with many now discussing the dangers of traveling to what is arguably the world’s most repressive nation. At present, at least three detained American citizens are still in North Korean custody, and the reclusive nature of the country and regime means we can’t know the full extent to which the totalitarian state has their own citizens under the iron fist.
It’s then only natural that the free world celebrates the plight of defectors from the DPRK and countries like it. As members of a free society, we bask in the presence of prominent escapes, whether from the old Soviet bloc or Nazi Germany many decades back, by people who dared to flee tyranny for the beckoning freedom of Western liberal democracy. But what is to be made of the uncommon, but nonetheless noteworthy occasion that someone raised in the good fortune of the West defects towards a country that remains lacking in the good fortunes of democratic capitalism?
One of the most jarring examples of this would be the unusual case of James Joseph Dresnok, an American soldier in the Korean War turned defector to North Korea. For reasons that will probably remain somewhat unexplained, Dresnok defected in 1962, and thereby remained for the long haul. Mr. Dresnok, called “Jim” in some contexts, and curiously referred to by local friends as Arthur after playing a villain by the same name in a North Korean film, crossed the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea after facing being court-martialed for forgery. Dresnok had enlisted to go to Korea after his first wife had an affair with another man:
“I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything. I was a finished. There’s only one place to go,” Dresnok said in an interview. “On August 15th, at noon in broad daylight when everybody was eating lunch, I hit the road. Yes I was afraid. Am I gonna live or die? And when I stepped into the minefield and I seen it with my own eyes, I started sweating. I crossed over, looking for my new life.”
At some level the rationale for the crossover is clear: a seemingly upstanding good citizen plays by the rules of his own country, he’s saddled with some unexpected setbacks and in a state of feeling left in the cold, he flees for the icy North Korean winds he perceives to be the antithesis of the society he believes has so thoroughly failed to compensate him. This is a tune we’ve seen played elsewhere in the world; one calls to mind the radicalization of people struggling to find identity in their immediate societal institutions and their actions explained in part by their failure to do so.
Despite Dresnok’s disenchantment with the United States and his defection across the DMZ, he showed some indication that he was not intent on staying in North Korea for the rest of his life. He, along with four other men attempted, unsuccessfully, to flee to the Soviet Union in 1966. The suggestion here is that even among the repressed nations of the world, there exist those which are relatively tolerable (so long as you keep quiet about politics, we can presume) and those which are manifestly miserable. A Soviet bloc citizen born in Czechoslovakia or Poland at the height of the Cold War years would probably have jumped at the chance to instead be in Moscow, where they could enjoy a better economy, escape brutal crackdowns such as that seen in the Prague Spring, and receive a better education. In the end, however, Dresnok remained in the DPRK, and by all accounts appeared to have attempted to make the best of a life in the least free nation on earth, even starring in a number of propaganda films overseen by the North Korean government. Dresnok was featured on 60 Minutes for his unusual situation and remained in Pyongyang until his reported death in 2016.
While attempted defection from the United States to the DPRK is not well appreciated by the North Korean government this day and age (just ask Matthew Todd Miller how it worked out for him), it can be reasonably assumed that the North Korean government made Dresnok relatively comfortable, if nothing more than for the sake of attempting to gain some sort of superficial moral upper hand against the United States. Countries unfriendly to the United States and to the West in general have a way of seizing on the opportunity to claim even a modicum of political superiority. This is precisely why Dresnok claimed to be well fed during the 1990’s famine, when large portions of the North Korean population had nothing to eat for themselves. It’s almost certain the DPRK’s regime instructed him to make such announcements.
In the end, did “Arthur” really gain a life of fulfillment beyond what he could have had in the United States? When he went AWOL, he escaped then imminent legal issues, caused by irresponsible personal decisions. He also averted, at least for the moment, facing up to the challenging questions of what led his marriage to fail. But ultimately, James Joseph Dresnok did not escape the societal limitations he believed to be eschewing when he risked life and limb to brave the less inviting side of the Korean Peninsula. And all said and done, Arthur spent the rest of his life in the clutches of a brutal dictatorship, perhaps better off than the average North Korean citizen, but scarcely better off than a coal miner in West Virginia. For the West Virginian coal miner remains free to defect in the first place, and one cannot overestimate the power that freedom will always have over any level of prestige that could ever be offered for its relinquishment.