5 Americans Who Defected to North Korea

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There is an early scene in Austin Powers wherein our hero is thawed from cryogenic freeze and wakes to scientists and men in uniform. He first entered his sleep at the height of the Cold War, and is alarmed now to see a Russian officer nearby.

"Austin, the Cold War is over!" he is assured, to which Austin responds, "Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrades?" (Sheepishly, his superior says, "Austin... we won.") In the 1960s, it was not clear that America would emerge triumphant, and Austin's mistaken assumption is understandable. For whatever reason, that scene came to mind while I was researching this list of Americans who defected to North Korea. Some of them were sold on the Communist lifestyle, some were looking for an escape from Western problems, and some were simply misled. Here are five Americans who expected the capitalist pigs to pay for their crimes, and defected to North Korea.

1. Joseph White

In 1982, an Army infantryman stationed in South Korea shot the lock of the demilitarized zone gate and slipped into the North. Joseph T. White was quickly put before cameras to denounce the "corruptness" and "hedonism" of the United States, and, if correspondence is to be believed, soon landed a job in North Korea as a schoolteacher, and was very happy there. Two years later, he drowned while fishing, and his body mysteriously disappeared.

2. Charles Robert Jenkins

On January 4, 1965, Charles Jenkins traded LBJ for Kim Il-Sung (the latter of whom, it should be noted, remains the Eternal President of the world's only necrocracy). Jenkins, it seems, was pretty worried about being transferred to the hell that was Vietnam, choosing instead the hell that is North Korea. Upon crossing the DMZ and surrendering to North Korean forces, he had hoped for a quick transfer to the Soviet Union. Thirty-nine years later, he finally left North Korea for Japan. He petitioned for a pardon by the United States, but was declined. (This was his second such rejection by a foreign power. In 1966, he slipped into the Soviet embassy and requested asylum. The Soviets would have none of that.) Unsurprisingly, Jenkins did not enjoy his time in North Korea, noting his quarantine in a crowded one-room shanty that lacked running water, the routine beatings, and the requirement to memorize the writings of Kim Il-Sung.

3. Larry Abshier

Larry Abshier crossed the border in 1962, and was cast as an Evil American in propaganda films, alongside such fellow defectors as Charles Jenkins. He became, by most accounts, a celebrity in North Korea for his body of work. Like Jenkins and the other defectors, he was forced to memorize vast swaths of Kim Il-Sung's prose. A fellow American expatriate named James Joseph Dresnok also bullied him relentlessly. (Jenkins described Abshier as "simple" and "easy to take advantage of," so much so that Abshier was nicknamed Lenny, after the character in Of Mice and Men.) Abshier married a couple of times; the North Korean government provided the women. He died in 1983, and was given a hero's burial. But not even on a headstone could the North Korean government pass on the opportunity to test the mutability of the past. Abshier's birthday is incorrect on the marker, and his birthplace is marked as "Pyongyang."

4. James Joseph Dresnok

One year before Larry Abshier arrived, James Dresnok was the new kid on the perfect incarnation of all that a block should be. He was a consummate actor—at least in his roles as Arthur, an Evil American in North Korean propaganda films. Why did he defect to the North? "I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything," he said. The Army wasn't too upset about the defection. According to military records, he was "a chronic complainer" who was "lazy" and "defiant to authority." Since his defection, three government-provided women have married him, and he seems to enjoy his life in the kingdom of the Kims. In what is probably the weirdest fact in this piece, you can follow Dresnok on Twitter here.

5. Jerry Parrish

Jerry Parrish made a dash for unhappier lands on December 6, 1963. His reason is both vague and suggestive: He believed that if he returned home from his Army stint in South Korea, "his father-in-law would kill him." He spent much of the next two decades in North Korea as a teacher at the state's Reconnaissance Bureau Foreign Language College, a military school in Pyongyang. He died in 1998 of kidney problems.

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April 15, 2013 - 11:00am
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