“The government is going to take care of me until my dying day.”
Crossing the Line is an interesting and ultimately disturbing documentary that examines the desertion of American soldier, James Dresnok to North Korea in 1962. While the main focus is Dresnok, information on the other soldiers who crossed over to North Korea is included in the film.
Director Daniel Gordon had several other Korean-based films (The Game of Their Lives & A State of Mind) under his belt when he managed to get permission to gather information for this remarkable story. Gordon sticks with a ‘hand-off’ approach, and leaves the viewer with Dresnok’s comments, memories and interpretation of events and does not challenge any of Dresnok’s frequently sticky answers. And this of course leaves us with the task of deciphering and interpreting the material while absorbing Dresnok’s sometimes bizarre statements. He doesn’t come off as a likeable character by any means, and his obtuse avoidance of some subjects is unpleasant.
With an abysmal childhood, troubled teenage years, and no prospects or family support, Dresnok enlisted in the U.S. Army on his seventeenth birthday. After a broken marriage, he was stationed in N. Korea, and his desertion was not ideologically based, but seems to have been motivated rather by a desire to leave the army behind. Escaping to N. Korea via a minefield, Dresnok was soon on the end of a megaphone urging fellow American soldiers to join him in the good life in N. Korea.
After a few years in North Korea, Dresnok and three other former U.S soldiers decided they’d had enough and that they’d go to the Soviet embassy and ask for asylum. They were promptly handed back to North Korean authorities, and for the next few years, they were ‘reeducated.’ Dresnok, and his fellow Americans, eventually developed a niche for themselves by making films, and the documentary includes a few cheesy film clips.
The results of Dresnok’s ‘reeducation’ are visible on camera; he has nothing bad to say about Kim II-Sung or his son and successor Kim Jong-iI, but Dresnok seems most bizarre and deeply in avoidance when questioned about the kidnapping of women, later provided as wives for the Americans allegedly for some sort of captive breeding programme. Dresnok’s disingenuousness on this subject is, well…disturbing and beyond belief. When questioned about how he managed to survive during the famine that wiped out somewhere between 2-3 million North Koreans, Dresnok becomes tearful discussing how his rice rations kept coming while millions of Koreans starved. Dresnok’s interpretation of this is that Koreans died so he could live. This interpretation, that they had some sort of choice in the matter, is of course, nonsense. In 1995, Kim Jong-il’s regime made the decision to “triage” the northeast region of the country, blocking shipments of food to the area while ensuring that the capital, Pyongyang received adequate supplies while ‘non-essential’ industries received nothing.
Dresnok seems happy in North Korea. Settled now with a (second) wife and family, he’s convinced that his life in Korea is far better than anything he could have possibly achieved in America.
After the film concluded, I found myself thinking about Dresnok. I wasn’t bothered that he’d defected. After all, he was a young and troubled kid with no one to leave behind, no ties or obligations. But I did find some of his responses to the questions profoundly disturbing. He seems to be an extreme example of an individual who justifies the actions of his government. It’s a bit ironic really, Dresnok voices his opinion against the Korean War, and yet he’s so quick to justify the starvation of millions. Of course, at the same time, it doesn’t seem sensible that Dresnok would appear on camera condemning N. Korea’s leader. After all, he has a wife and family to think about now. As Dresnok’s childhood friend asks on camera: If he to desert, why did it have to be Korea?
But then I thought, what if someone made a film about the Iraq War? What if some director sat a cross-section of the American public down in front of cameras and made them explain what America is up to in Iraq? What would they say? Possibly several would talk about the so-called War on Terror and others would talk about Saddam Hussein and the (mythical) Weapons of Mass Destruction. Still others would cite 9-11 as the justification for war. Then, what if after making this film, the director played it to an audience of regular working-class Iraqis. I wonder what their reaction would be to the average American’s discussion of the Iraq War and the need to take the War on Terror into their country. What would they think if they sat there and listened to the Americans’ reasons for justifying the war? Would they find the Americans’ responses bizarre? Well, we can only imagine….
And so when I think about Dresnok, as much as his answers disturbed me, I reminded myself that many people justify the most horrendous, most violent and most inexcusable behaviours conducted by their governments. Dresnok is not alone on the planet on this issue. But the situation just seems so much more bizarre because he’s already such an oddity, even before he’s presented with tough questions about the famine and the kidnapped women. Captured on camera, Dresnok’s denials and avoidance seem downright peculiar, but then these situations are all right just as long as you’re drinking the Kool-Aid, but once you stop … it all seems insane and sickening.