Crossing the Line – Documentary

Crossing the Line (2006), written and directed by Daniel Gordon
Narrated by Christian Slater

As I was reading about North Korea over the past few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to get a little bit different perspective on the country. Megan from Algonquin Books set me on the trail of VeryMuchSo Productions, a documentary film crew who has made at least three different documentaries about North Korea.Their 2002 documentary The Game of Their Lives follows the 1996 World Cup soccer team from North Korea, and A State of Mind in 2004 tells the story of a pair of North Korean gymnasts. Both sounded fairly interesting, but when I came across VeryMuchSo’s 2006 documentary, Crossing the Line, about 0ne of the four US soldiers stationed in South Korea who defected in the 1960s, I knew I’d found what I wanted to watch.

James Dresnok was the second US soldier to defect to North Korea, and is the only one left alive in the country. By now he has been in North Korea more than twice as long as he ever lived in the United States. Dresnok allegedly had a very tough childhood, that seems to have turned him into a troubled young man. His first marriage ended when his wife cheated on him during one of his tours in Korea. When he returned to South Korea, based on how he tells his own story, he acted like a petulant, defiant teenager. When his commanding officer refused to give him a pass, he forged one and when he was on the verge of being brought up on charges, he simply walked across the DMZ into North Korea to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

Although there are conflicting stories about some of the things that have happened to Dresnok over the past 50 years in North Korea, even the opposing stories offer an instructive look into life in North Korea. For one, the accusations that the brides of all four American defectors were women brought to North Korea against their will.  Of the two women still alive (neither of which was Dresnok’s first wife in North Korea, his second of three wives total), one claims that she simply came to North Korea as a tourist and fell in love, but the other has said that, although she came to love her husband, she was in North Korea because she had been kidnapped from Japan.

Crossing the Line is a fascinating hour and 1/2 view into American defectors and the lives they have lived in North Korea. It is not a topic that would have ever occurred to me, people defecting TO North Korea instead of FROM North Korea, but it has happened and is an instructive phenomenon to study.

If you’re interested in North Korea, Crossing the Line is definitely worth checking out. It is currently streaming on Netflix.


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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. –p. 11

One of the hardest countries to get a look inside is North Korea. Closed off since the Korean War, North Korea initially seemed to be doing better, financially than its cousin to the South. Pyongyan, the one city where visitors occasionally came, was filled with only those inhabitants who would make a good impression on outsiders, but even outside of the capital city most North Koreans believed for many years that their lives were as good or better than those of most of the world’s inhabitants. All this began to change with the famine in the 1990s, however. As people began to starve to death, they took increased risks and increasingly subverted the state that had held them captive for so long. Crossing illegally into China to work or trade for food gave many North Koreans a glimpse of what life was like in the rest of the world. It was only at this time that defections began in earnest.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick chronicles the lives of a variety of North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea. All came from different family situations in the stratified North Korean society, and all initially had varying degrees of dedication to the state, but all initially believed the propaganda they were fed. How could they not, after all? None of the outside world penetrates North Korea enough to show anything different. Plus, any resistance would mean repercussions not only on the protester his or herself, but on all other known relatives.

Demick interweaves her subject’s stories in such a way that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Alternating stories could have made Nothing to Envy choppy, but it is done skillfully with good transitions, so that instead it serves to keep the reader’s interest and keep any of the subjects from fading into the background.

For a general overview of the day-to-day lives so North Koreans, plus fantastic background to the situation, beginning with the end of WWII, I cannot recommend Nothing to Envy highly enough.

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