Crossing The Line

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At midday on August 15, 1962, in the depths of the Cold War, a depressed US Army private, James “Joe” Dresnok, left his post on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone, a 2.5 mile wide strip of no man’s land that bisects the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea. The 21 year old bolted across the most heavily fortified border on earth, directly through a minefield, and into another world. One of four American defectors who crossed over to the hard line communist North during the 1960s, Dresnok has lived in the North Korean capital Pyongyang ever since, and has not been seen by the outside world for 44 years. Now, the American defector’s astonishing story is being told for the first time in a documentary called Crossing The Line. It is a story of betrayal, kidnappings and the alleged “breeding” of spies in the most secretive nation on the planet. The British film crew’s access to North Korea came thanks to producer Nicholas Bonner, who has run sightseeing groups into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is officially known, via his Beijing based tour company since 1993. Having entered the isolated country well in excess of 100 times, 45 year old Bonner has visited the DPRK more than any other westerner. Bonner and director Daniel Gordon first collaborated on The Game Of Their Lives, a 2002 documentary about the North Korean football team that shocked the world by knocking the Italians out of the 1966 World Cup. “It was then that I began to hear stories that at first glance were mind blowing, but on reflection seemed too fantastic to be true, Americans were living in North Korea,” says Gordon. Two of the four defectors had died of ill health. Negotiations on meeting the two survivors, Dresnok and Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who crossed over in 1965, began immediately in Pyongyang. It took two years, and a second documentary, A State Of Mind, which followed two schoolgirl gymnasts, for Gordon and Bonner to convince suspicious officials of their intentions. Filming of Crossing The Line began in June 2004. The documentary, narrated by the American actor Christian Slater, kicks off with Dresnok, disillusioned and miserable on duty in Korea. Several things loom over him his unhappy childhood as an orphan in Norfolk, Virginia, a failed teenage marriage, and, most urgently, a threatened court martial for leaving his post to visit prostitutes. This is the misfit who, without really thinking what he was letting himself in for, suddenly decided to run for it. Incorporating archive footage never before seen outside the DPRK, Crossing The Line then picks up four years later when Dresnok and the three other US defectors, including Jenkins, decide they’ve made a mistake and seek asylum in the Soviet Embassy. The Russians swiftly hand them back and Dresnok realises he is trapped and will have to learn to fit in. He eventually finds acceptance in Pyongyang by appearing as an evil American in propaganda movies like 1978’s Nameless Heroes, in which he plays the brutal US commander of a PoW camp during the 1950-53 Korean War. Crossing The Line explores allegations that North Korea kidnapped nationals of other countries to marry them off to the Americans the idea being that the couples would then have foreign looking children who could be used as spies for the DPRK. Despite his macho bluster, 65 year old Dresnok’s health is now failing, and producer Bonner says he lives out his days smoking, drinking the fiery Korean grain spirit soju and hanging out with his fishing buddies, with whom he speaks fluent Korean. At one point in Crossing The Line, the camera focuses in on his catch as it gasps for life on a cold concrete riverbank in Pyongyang. It is, quite literally, a dying fish out of water.