Private First Class Larry Allen Abshier made a decision of incomprehensible permanence on May 28, 1962. Just 19-years old, he took off into the minefield-laden abyss of the Korean DMZ, running northward with reckless abandon. Stunned, American soldiers watched Abshier—the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea since the Korean War—disappear into a new life from which he would never return.
On June 13, North Korean radio announced Abshier’s defection, saying he could no longer stand a “humiliating life” in the American military; “I was conscience-stricken by the behavior of the United States Army in South Korea,” the defector was quoted as saying in a later broadcast.
What little is known about Larry Abshier’s childhood suggests a troubled upbringing. He grew up in Garfield Heights, Ohio, his father running a gas station ten miles away in Cleveland. By age 14, Abshier was a ward of the state at the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Children’s School.
In 1961, Abshier enlisted in the U.S. Army and was deployed to South Korea. There, he made a habit of smoking marijuana on duty. According to James Dresnok—a U.S. G.I. that defected to North Korea in August 1962— Abshier “was caught on it [marijuana] five or six times…They were going to court-martial him or kick him out of the Army…Instead of going back to his old life, he just came over to the DPRK.”
Three months later, Private Dresnok walked across the DMZ himself, shotgun in hand, to also avoid relatively benign court-martial charges. Two more Americans, Specialist Jerry Wayne Parrish and Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, defected in December 1963 and January 1965, respectively. Upon Jenkins’s arrival in North Korea, he explained that he’d defected to avoid the Vietnam War; “Well, you may have had one foot in the pot, but you just jumped in the fire,” Dresnok replied tartly.
Pyongyang exploited the four Americans for maximum propaganda value. Abshier and Dresnok, and later Parrish and Jenkins, were featured in a series of propaganda magazines entitled, “Fortune’s Favorites.” The publications depicted the Americans smiling ear-to-ear, marveling at the joyous benefits of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Featured “letters from Abshier and Dresnok,” titled to American soldiers south of the DMZ, read:
Dear Old Fellow Friends!…Enjoying warm welcome from the North Korean people, I put off the disgusting G.I. uniform and visited Pyongyang and other cities and villages. To tell the truth, the people in North Korea are enjoying freedom and happiness inaccessible to the working people of the United States…Please, don’t be a victim for the Wall Street but fight for your withdrawal from South Korea.
Charles Robert Jenkins—who managed to leave North Korea in 2004—speaks of a very different reality for the four men in his autobiography:
We were all young, dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds…I had a pretty good military record while the other three were pretty much total fuck-ups as soldiers…The three of them, also like me, walked across the DMZ without really thinking about the huge consequences of what they were doing and without understanding what North Korea was really like…they were trapped, forever, in North Korea. All of them quickly grew to hate the country and would have left in a second if they could have…What a sorry-ass little foursome we were…
After Jenkins’s arrival, the four defectors lived in a two-bedroom brick house, ten minutes outside of Pyongyang. Their days were quickly consumed by relentless ideological study of Kim Il Sung’s writings and weekly self-criticism sessions, where they had to confess mistakes before a government cadre.
Dresnok, by Jenkins’s account, emerged as a bully in the group, routinely picking on Abshier—a “simple, sweet, good-hearted soul who was also more than a little dumb and easy to take advantage of.” After the men, for instance, listened to a foreign radio broadcast of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—Dresnok and Parrish ridiculed Abshier as “Lennie,” nicknaming him after the story’s mentally deficient protagonist.
When Abshier did stick up for himself, it was not in the most well thought-out fashion. On one occasion, Abshier called the Workers’ Party “개새끼” [Gaesaekki], meaning “son of a bitch” (literally a new-born dog), after North Korean cadres butchered a pig that the Americans had been fattening up for months. The officials swiftly gathered a group of AK-47 toting soldiers, pushed Abshier up against a wall, and demanded he apologize or be killed on the spot.
In June 1972—following years of memorizing party propaganda—the four Americans were offered DRPK citizenship. After Jenkins asked what would happen if they refused, a government official coolly replied: “Then you won’t be here tomorrow.”
After becoming citizens, the group separated, with Abshier and Parrish living together and Jenkins and Dresnok sharing a home. Both pairs took turns teaching English at a military academy from 1973 to 1976. During that time, the North Korean government assigned female “cooks” to the Americans—“fulfilling all the roles that wives traditionally fulfill,” as Jenkins described it. These Korean women—all previously divorced for infertility—were sent away in 1978 after Abshier impregnated his “cook.” Thereafter, the government offered the men foreign women to marry. Abshier wed a woman from Thailand called Anocha; three months prior, she was kidnapped from a dark alley in Macau and forced to go to North Korea by sea.
It was around that time that the defectors began acting in segments of a 20-part North Korean film epic entitled Nameless Heroes—the first of many cinema projects in which the defectors played devious Westerners. Abshier played the part of a secret police captain—though his on-screen abilities left much to be desired—and the Americans gained a small measure of fame in the insular country.
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Larry Allen Abshier, sitting to the left at the beginning of this clip from Nameless Heroes, shows off his acting abilities.
On July 11, 1983, however, Abshier died from a heart attack in his home outside of Pyongyang, an inauspicious end to an ill-fated life. The defector was laid to rest in a wooden coffin, covered with a red flag, at just forty years of age.
His tombstone—with apparently no hint of irony—listed Pyongyang as his birthplace.
For more information:
- Crossing the Line [Documentary Film]. Directed by Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner. 2006.
- Jenkins, Charles Robert and Jim Frederick, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
- Jerome, Richard and Leah Eskin. “Still Out in the Cold.” People Magazine 45. April 15, 1996.
- Weiner, Tim. “The Guys Who Went Into the Cold: Turncoats for the North Koreans.” The New York Times, January 21, 1996: E7.
Picture: Conelrod blog