I first heard about the documentary film “Crossing the Line” back in 2005. Rumors shot around in the press. Then, I had the good fortune to see the film “A State of Mind” at the Tribeca Film Festival. North Korea documentarian Nick Bonner was on hand to discuss the film and confirmed that his team was making what would become “Crossing the Line,” a film about the last American defector living in North Korea. Last Tuesday, I was finally able to see the film, which was an expeirence about which I have been dreaming since news broke of former American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins’ defection from North Korea to Japan.
I was not disappointed.
“Crossing the Line” covers the life of James Joseph Dresnok, the last American defector living in North Korea. If you are not a die-hard on the subject matter, the film will strike you as interesting, though slow in spots. If, like me, you are hungry for any detail you can find on the DPRK (i.e., Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s formal name), you will want to see this film twice.
The film digs into Dresknok’s story. He defected as a Private First Class, a relatively low rank. The man came from a troubled childhood and had just experienced a stinging divorce. He had one court martial under his belt and was due for another. So, he crossed the famous 38 Parallel. Rocket scientist that he is, he did so in broad daylight and even discharged his weapon toward an observation post.
I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone. Further, filmmaker and North Korea tourism guru Nick Bonner worked his ass off to make this film, and I don’t think he’s getting rich on it. So, go see it at one of the screenings or shell out some cash and order it. It’s worth it. I will tell you, though, that there is plenty of original footage, and lots of time with Dresnok. Also, you’ll see an interview with the man who apprehended the defector. Juicy details about Hitomi Soga are not to be missed.
What struck me as amazing is that, when you think about it, Dresnok is probably better off in North Korea than he would be in his native Virginia. Think about it. The guy is barely literate. He would have returned to the United States with two courts martial. For those of you who have never served, an honorable discharge probably wasn’t in the cards, and a court martial follows you as a felony conviction in civilian life. He probably wouldn’t have been able to get a job removing asbestos from a decrepit building with his teeth. In North Korea, however, he’s treated well, it seems. He has a place to live, food on his plate and a family. He’s even famous, having starred in several major North Korean films.
Look, I’m not celebrating the North Korean system as a whole. I’ll leave political judgments to every reader. But, taken objectively, life would probably be much worse for Jenkins in the States than it is in North Korea.
As speculation about the realities of life in North Korea, particularly for U.S. defectors, rages on, there are basically two accounts available. One is Bonner’s “Crossing the Line.” The other is a book by Jenkins, The Reluctant Communist. A look at the facts is incredibly difficult, given the divergent tales of these two strange men. After all, what is fact? We have two accounts that are virtually impossible to substantiate. Further, if we take Dresnok at his words, “Opinions are like assholes …” Yeah, you know the rest.
Jenkins claims that Dresnok abused him physically, while Dresnok admits to having hit Jenkins once (and for a good reasons). There were to pops, Dresnok recalls, him hitting Jenkins and Jenkins hitting the floor.
When Jenkins returned to Japan to face the music with the U.S. Army, of course, he had an agenda. He was old, apparently in ill health and wanted some form of leniency, which he received in a 30-day sentence, of which he served 23 days. He also carried the stigma of a deserter and a traitor. The fact that Jenkins doesn’t appear to be very bright casts some doubt on his credibility, as well. And, he just wanted to get the hell out of North Korea. His tale is made easier to to believe by the fact that he brings a message that resonates in the United States.
Dresnok, though, is not without his flaws. Like Jenkins, he doesn’t appear to be in the running for any genius awards (a Darwin Award on the other hand? maybe). The fact that he is still in North Korea also brings his credibility into question. If he is at risk of any form of punishment (which is the prevailing wsidom in the western world), then it pays to tell a decent story.
Let’s not forget that both men probably have some pride and will tell self-serving versions of their stories. Given all this, it’s pretty damned difficult to get a sense of what truth underlies the stories coming out of North Korea.
Nick Bonner has taken “Crossing the Line” on tour in the United States. I saw it at the Korea Society in Manhattan on October 28, 2008. The following dates are still available (trailer at the bottom of the page):
Monday, November 3, 2008–6:30 PM
University of Missouri, Columbia
100 Stewart Hall
University of Missouri
Contact #: (573) 882-6902
Wednesday, November 5, 2008–7:30 PM
University of Notre Dame
Eck Visitors Center Auditorium
100 Eck Center
Notre Dame, IN
Contact #: (574) 631-8873
Monday, November 10, 2008–4:30 PM
University of California at Los Angeles
314 Royce Hall
Los Angeles, CA
Contact #: (310) 825-3284
Wednesday, November 12, 2008–6:15 PM
University of California at Santa Barbara
McCune Conference Center (HSSB 6020)
Santa Barbara, CA
Contact #: (805) 893-3907