September 08, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


The Defector 

He grew up in Glen Allen. So why did he cross over to North Korea?

Dresnok's story is less a narrative than a litany of questions, the chief being: Why?

Why would a 20-year-old soldier forsake his home, his loved ones and every value with which he was raised? Why, in particular, would he do it for a future in a famine-ravaged, repressive nation sequestered from the rest of the planet? Why, no matter how disappointing life might be, no matter how much heartbreak it dealt, would someone seek solace in North Korea?

The answers to at least some such questions may be near. In May, a pair of British filmmakers spoke with Dresnok, now 62 years old, in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. He agreed to appear in a documentary, to be called "Crossing the Line," about him and three other GIs who defected to North Korea in the 1960s.

American officials have lobbied the country's communist government for permission to interview the men for years. They've been turned down or ignored, even as two of the four died and a third left the country.

Dresnok is the only one left. This month, when the filmmakers return, he is expected to tell a story that began on a long-ago August afternoon, when he picked up a 12-gauge shotgun he'd been cleaning and, wearing his Army fatigues, set out alone across the demilitarized zone.

He was born two Mondays before Pearl Harbor, the older of his parents' two sons. Little is known about the elder Dresnoks beyond that they split when James was 9 and his brother was 5. Dresnok stayed with his father. His brother, Joe, lived with their mother.

The arrangement was temporary. In his teens, James Dresnok was placed in a foster home in rural Glen Allen under the care of a Presbyterian minister named Carson T. Overstreet and his wife, Marguarite, known to her charges as "Big Mama."

Overstreet, in his mid-50s when Dresnok arrived, was a big, good-humored man, commanding and deep-voiced and stern in the pulpit, softhearted when it came to the down-and-out. The couple fitted their farmhouse with bunk beds and filled them with foster sons, sending the boys to Henrico County schools and busying them with chores: caring for a pony named Buckwheat out back, tending the vegetables in the yard, working the family's farmland.

"The boys had things to do," recalled Elizabeth O. Pratt of Lewes, Del., one of the Overstreets' three daughters. "They helped fix the meals. But they sat at the same table, and they could eat as much as they wanted."

"He did a great job with those boys," Robert Henshaw, who was married to another daughter, said of Overstreet. "That's how he kept them out of trouble, by keeping them busy."

Years later, Dresnok would complain to the North Koreans that in his "primary school days in the city of Richmond in the state of Virginia, I had to be a handy man of a farm or workshop near the city to get my school fee," but his years in Glen Allen seem to have been happy. "They were a close group, all the boys," Henshaw said.

Dresnok went by "Joe" in those days and impressed Pratt and Henshaw as a decent, if somewhat aimless, youngster. Tall, fair-haired and strong, he dabbled with football, but didn't stick with it. He performed serviceably in school, but dropped out after the eighth grade.

He worked in construction for a while with Henshaw, who thought him "a nice kid, really, a very nice guy." Then, the day after his 17th birthday, he joined the Army.

Dresnok's enlistment papers indicate he was initially bound for the service's elite Airborne community. He didn't get there: After boot camp and advanced infantry training at Fort Jackson, S.C., he instead got orders to Wildflecken, Germany, and to duty well-suited to the hoss of a man he'd become — lugging ammo and the heavy M-60 machine gun in an armored rifle battalion.

Dresnok's military career took an inauspicious turn Jan. 26, 1960, when he improperly appropriated a Volkswagen valued at $715 from its owner, Franz Schuhmann, threatened a second German with a bayonet and carried the bayonet concealed on his body, all in violation of Army regulations. He also wrongfully abandoned a $10.15 pair of thermal boots, a pile cap worth $1.60 and a lined parka valued at $23.85, all of it Army-issue and the property of the United States.

Judged guilty at an April court martial, Dresnok was busted to recruit and fined $28 a month for three months. He also received a suspended month of confinement at hard labor.

His more than two years in Germany was otherwise unremarkable. He grew stouter — from 202 to 257 pounds. He acquired tattoos — a nude on his left arm and an Army paratrooper on his right.

Somewhere along the way, he acquired a wife, as well, Kathleen Ringwood of Harrisburg, Pa. How they met and exactly when they wed, is unclear — both may have happened before he left the States — but they apparently were still married in April 1962 when Dresnok re-enlisted in Richmond.

It was not a perfect union. On his last visit to Virginia, Dresnok told Henshaw that his marriage was ending. "He came home from leave and his wife was with another man, something like that," he said. "So he was very upset."

Divorce was imminent when he received orders to Charlie Company of the 1st Battle Group, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. He arrived in South Korea aboard a Navy transport in early June 1962.

Then as now, Korea was split at the 38th Parallel by "the Z," a heavily fortified no man's land 151 miles long and 5 wide. Patrols from both sides wove among its craters, minefields, the ruins of graveyards and villages, its copses and weedy fields, on the lookout for enemy interlopers.

Dresnok was assigned gunner's duty, and joined the crew of a Jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifle. He failed to make a good impression; one report described him as "a chronic complainer, lazy" and "defiant to authority." In July he called the Overstreets collect. The family, unaccustomed to international calls, told him they'd accept the charges if it was an emergency. He said it wasn't.

But perhaps that wasn't the case. Korea offered many temptations to a young soldier, particularly one confused and pained by a failed marriage, and by early August, Dresnok was in trouble over a host of alleged misdeeds — a forged pass, drinking, indebtedness, promiscuity. He was scheduled for his second court martial on Aug. 16.

Jimmy R. Cash, a warrant officer who handled Charlie Company's personnel duties, was in the company office the day before when "we got a report that someone had gone over the DMZ."

"I think all of us were mystified," said Cash, now retired and living in Fayetteville, N.C. "All of us were taken by surprise."

Dresnok wasn't the first American defector to North Korea. He wasn't, in fact, even the first in 1962. A few weeks before, an 18-year-old Army private had left his guard post and sprinted north across the DMZ. North Korean radio claimed he bolted because he was "unable to endure the prick of conscience and repress indignation at the doings of the U.S. Army in South Korea and the humiliating life in the U.S. Army unit."

In reality, Larry A. Abshier was a troubled screw-up. Like Dresnok, he'd spent much of his youth in the care of surrogate parents, had dropped out of school and had entered the Army at 17. And, like Dresnok, he'd had his share of run-ins with the brass: Earlier in the year, he'd been tried at court martial for drunkenness and leaving his post. Busted to buck private, he was still on reduced pay when he crossed the line.

Still, GIs didn't make a habit of switching sides, and the North Koreans were quick to exploit their new comrades. "A cloudless day, and the second day which I meet in North Korea," read Dresnok's supposed diary entry for Aug. 17, 1962, published in a pamphlet of labored rhetoric and posed photos.

"Till last night I was rather uneasy," the entry read. "Though I was in ecstasy over my escaping from the devil's hell, I was uncertain whether the North Korean people would understand me or not.

"Now all my uneasiness vanished away. The officers of the People's Army warmly treated me, encouraging me for my decisive action. I'm now enjoying too good treatments for me. I feel my frozen heart suppressed for a long time suddenly thawing."

He and Abshier also put their names to a letter to their former colleagues claiming that life in the Democratic People's Republic was "incomparably freer and happier than that of the Americans or the South Koreans."

"Dear old fellow friends!" it read. "Here the entire country is sizzling with peaceful construction and the people are working hard to realize the peaceful reunification of their country. It is preposterous that the U.S. rulers label such peace-loving people as 'aggressors.'

"Goodbye, friends," it concluded. "I wish you a good luck."

Late that year, the North Koreans used the defections to goad United Nations officials guarding the border between the two Koreas. The venue was the Military Armistice Commission, created in 1953 to supervise the truce ending the Korean War.

Diplomacy had an unorthodox style at the Nov. 29 meeting; it opened with an Allied officer denouncing a recent Communist incursion as crying "out stridently of your infamy, of your complete lack of honor, and of the two-faced, unprincipled duplicity that is the hallmark of the image your side presents to the world."

The North Koreans scoffed at these "utterly absurd and wanton remarks," which were meant to "cover up the bestial atrocities of the U.S. imperialist ogres who have been outrageously shooting to death the innocent inhabitants in South Korea."

Thus warmed up, the North Koreans produced photographs of Dresnok and Abshier, and announced the men "were unable to put up with your adventurous war and the corruption within the ranks of the U.S. imperialist aggressive forces" and "came to our side in search of better living and now have been leading a happy life."

"I was wondering how long it would be before you brought up the matter," the ranking U.N. officer replied, before wrapping up his comments with: "Do you have any more lies to bring up at this meeting?"

It wasn't long before the North had more to crow about. On Dec. 6, 1963, Spc. 4 Jerry Wayne Parrish of Morganfield, Ky., abandoned his post and fled north. On or about Dec. 23 he hand-wrote a Christmas card that somehow turned up in his old unit three days later.

Parrish's voice boomed over loudspeakers along the DMZ, as well. Come over and join me, he reportedly said. The North Koreans are treating me well, and besides, they have better tanks.

Little more than a year later, on Jan. 5, 1965, a fourth American went over the line: Sgt. Charles Robert "Super" Jenkins, of Rich Square, N.C., left the night patrol he was leading in the DMZ, telling his troops to stay put while he checked out a noise. He never came back.

The four became favored spokesmen for the Hermit Kingdom — posing for photos while playing pingpong, boating on a lake, hiking. All went to work teaching English at a military foreign-language school in Pyongyang.

Then, in the early 1980s, came the surreal "Nameless Heroes," a Korean War espionage drama packaged as a 20-part TV miniseries. It offers up uniformed Korean soldiers slow-dancing to fast, jazzy lounge music; Asian actors donning blackface, bad blond wigs and fake beards to portray Westerners; male villains done up in Kabuki-worthy mascara and eye shadow; airplanes and cars from the 1970s, in a drama set two decades before.

Filmed in English, overdubbed in Korean, the movie made use of all four defectors. Jenkins portrays "Dr. Kelton," the brains behind the war, in a black suit, French cuffs and a vaguely Amish-looking flat-brimmed hat. Abshier plays a menacing secret police captain. Parrish is a U.S. Army lieutenant who, crazed with grief for his dying sister back home, goes wild on a wind-swept moor, firing his sidearm into the air and screaming, "To hell with America!"

Dresnok makes his entrance — and exit — in Episode 14, as a corrupt Army lieutenant colonel. His first scene has him hosting a visit by reporters to an Allied encampment, swaggering about in khakis and aviator sunglasses. In his second, a dinner conversation, he apparently proposes some shady deal that ruffles the film's leading man. His acting is wooden. His sloppy dress, long sideburns and moustache lend the impression that he's miscast as an O-5.

By the time U.S. officials announced that they had obtained the film, in 1996, Dresnok was in his mid-50s, and any insight it offered into how the defectors were fairing was long obsolete. Defense Department analysts studied it, just the same. It was all they had.

In May, documentary filmmakers Nicholas Bonner and Daniel Gordon met Jenkins and Dresnok in Pyongyang. The defectors reportedly told them that Abshier and Parrish were dead of natural causes.

Jenkins has since left North Korea to seek medical attention and to join his wife, whom North Korean agents abducted from her native Japan, and who was permitted to return to her homeland in 2002. This week, Jenkins denounced the North Korean government and said he cooperated with the regime only to save his own life and protect his family. He said he would surrender to U.S. military authorities.

Dresnok has no similar plans, it seems. "I did not want to stay in DPRK, at first," the film crew quoted him as saying. "I wanted to go to Russia.

"Having crossed, after a few months I began thinking it over and decided to remain," he said. "I'm glad I did, because about 10 years ago, Russia changed from socialism to capitalism. If I was in Russia right now, I would be out of work. It would be the same if I returned to America. I find it more convenient to live among peaceful people, living a simple life."

That life, by some reports, includes a wife and daughter. But their identities, along with any further details of the past 42 years, will have to wait for the filmmakers' September return - assuming that the regime permits it.

Then, finally, Dresnok might answer some of the questions that nag those whom he left behind. "The day we got the news that Joe had defected, my mother was home alone with the boys," Elizabeth Pratt recalled. "She was on TV that evening, sitting in her rocker, saying she didn't believe it.

"I can still picture her, rocking in her chair, telling everyone he wouldn't do such a thing. I think they always believed he'd been pulled over, not that he'd deserted. And who wouldn't want to believe that? It's a terrible thing to do.

"A terrible thing," she sighed. "But he was a mixed-up kid." S

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