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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
James Joseph Dresnok, a U.S. military serviceman who in 1962 defected to North Korea by running through a minefield across the demilitarized zone, died in 2016 following a period of serious illness, regular visitors to Pyongyang told NK News last week.
News about the death of Dresnok, one of only a handful of Americans who defected North following the Korean War, has not to date been publicized by state media, despite him having played numerous roles in North Korean movies over the years.
“We were told via film industry contacts in Pyongyang that he had passed away,” said Simon Cockerell, the general manager at Koryo Tours. “We were told late last year, but weren’t told when it had happened, or how.”
“I had heard he was very ill,” confirmed another regular visitor to the DPRK, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of speaking to media. “About two years ago was the time I was told he was too ill to see me.”
Known better as “Jim,” Dresnok was in 2006 featured prominently on British TV in the documentary “Crossing the Line,” where he was notably seen visiting a Pyongyang hospital in one scene to address chronic health problems.
Before his defection North he had been depressed following a divorce, Dresnok told documentary makers at the time: “I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage my military life, everything… I was finished. There’s only one place to go.”
And so, “on August 15th, at noon in broad daylight when everybody was eating lunch, I hit the road,” he said of his decision.
“Yes I was afraid. Am I gonna live or die? And when I stepped into the minefield and I seen it with my own eyes, I started sweating. I crossed over, looking for my new life.”
The UK’s Guardian newspaper interviewed Dresnok again in 2008 who, at the time, was smoking “three packs a day despite a serious heart condition and warnings from his doctor”.
Dresnok left two sons, Ted and James, who he raised in the DPRK and who still live in the country.
The sons were last year interviewed by pro-North Korean outlet Minjok Tongshin. In the footage, the pair praised their adopted country as an ideal society and said their father’s decision to cross the DMZ had been the “right path” to take.
According to the Chosun Ilbo, Ted and James were born from a Romanian mother, who was abducted by North Korea and later ordered to marry James Dresnok. She reportedly died of cancer in 1997 at age 47.
“We hadn’t seen Joe in a few years but from time to time ran into one or more of his sons; one of whom shares his first name, James, leading to confusion about who had passed away,” Cockerell said.
Main picture: Very Much So Productions