The Media Today

The American soldiers who made movies in Pyongyang 

July 25, 2023
A TV screen shows a file image of American soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, July 22, 2023. King bolted into North Korea while on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday, a day after he was supposed to travel to a base in the U.S. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Last week, Travis King, a US Army private, signed up for a tourist trip to the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, on the border of North and South Korea. King had been stationed in the latter country, where he was recently jailed for assault; US military personnel subsequently escorted him to the airport to fly back to Fort Bliss, in Texas, for further disciplinary measures, but King left the airport and went to the DMZ instead. When he got there, he bought a souvenir hat, according to one eyewitness, then, suddenly, sprinted toward the border. The eyewitness thought he was recording a prank for TikTok, but King didn’t stop. Soon, he was in North Korea and out of sight.

No one outside of that country seemed to know exactly what happened to King next. In the days that followed, North Korean officials and their state media apparatus stayed publicly silent, and the Biden administration said it was trying to determine King’s status; yesterday, an official with the United Nations Command—a US-led body that oversees the southern side of the DMZ and communicates with North Korea in the absence of diplomatic relations between that country and the US—said that conversations over King had begun, but that he couldn’t tell the press any more than that. As a result, we don’t know why King defected, or if that’s even the right word to describe his crossing. We know only that his fate has become entangled in growing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Since he fled, the US has docked nuclear-armed and -powered submarines in South Korea, while North Korea has conducted missile tests.

Below the toplines, some of the coverage of King has also pointed to a fascinating, largely forgotten chapter of the historical record—namely, the tales of four US soldiers who fled to North Korea in the years after the end of the Korean War (the seventieth anniversary of which falls this week), and how the North Korean regime drafted them into propaganda campaigns, including literature and movies aimed variously at other potential defectors and North Korean citizens.

As Erik Scott, a historian who wrote a book about Cold War-era defectors, told NPR last week, the word “defection” tends to connote a principled ideological choice but the motivations for it are often personal—again, we don’t yet know why King fled to North Korea, but the troubles he left behind are strikingly similar to those of some of his forebears. “What’s remarkable about it is that through this act, although it’s a very dangerous one and has very serious consequences, they’re catapulted from relative unknowns into international celebrities of a sort that everyone is talking about,” Scott said. Some of them have become stars, too, in North Korea, where the international conversation is shut out. 

The first US military defection to North Korea came in 1962, when Larry Allen Abshier fled across the border. He was nineteen and reportedly
faced disciplinary action for repeatedly smoking marijuana on duty. The same year, James Joseph Dresnok followed Abshier; he, too, was in hot water, after faking a superior’s signature to leave his post, as well as being more broadly disillusioned with his life. (Both Abshier and Dresnok seem to have had difficult childhoods; Dresnok’s marriage had recently collapsed.) In 1963, Jerry Wayne Parrish, also nineteen, crossed over. Two years after that, Charles Jenkins, a sergeant, joined them. He later said that he was drunk and scared of being sent to fight in Vietnam, and that he thought he’d soon be returned to the US via a prisoner swap with North Korea’s Soviet allies. He was wrong.

The four men would live together in North Korea, where officials sought to indoctrinate them into the local political system. After trying, and failing, to defect en masse to the Soviet Union via that country’s embassy, they were eventually offered North Korean citizenship and advised, on pain of death, to take it. They were also enlisted as information warriors. Dresnok was put to work addressing his former US comrades in the DMZ over a loudspeaker system, enticing them to follow him with the promise that North Korea would treat them like royalty. Their faces were plastered over leaflets that were also dropped into South Korea. According to a 2015 article by Simon Fowler for the BBC, the soldiers were beaten and psychologically tortured, but they were kept well-fed, so as to appear in rude health when their photos were taken. 

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Then there were the movies. Kim Jong Il, then a scion of the ruling dynasty and later its head, was a cinema buff who saw film as a key tool of revolutionary consciousness-raising and played an important role in developing movies that would indoctrinate the populace. “North Korea is a theater state, and cinema is the main driver of their visual language and cultural propaganda about the supremacy of the Kims and the country as a worker’s paradise,” Paul Fischer, the author of a book about Kim Jong Il and cinema, told Vulture in 2014. According to Fischer, the state once made a biopic of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s revered father. The actor who played him was given plastic surgery to enhance the likeness. When filming was complete, he was sent to a concentration camp. “The thinking was, How do you have a guy play god?” Fischer said.

In 1978, the four American defectors were cast in the first of a twenty-part series of movies about the Korean War, whose title has variously been translated to English as Unsung Heroes and Nameless Heroes. They played characters ranging from an evil American warlord (Jenkins) to a Northern Irish soldier who, inspired by his loathing of the British presence in his homeland, eventually joined the communist cause (Parrish). From the clips I’ve seen (and what I can understand of them), the films have a melodramatic quality. In some of the clips, the Americans can be seen acting with gusto. “Parrish and myself were the best two,” Dresnok later said. “Abshier—he freezes a little; he’s a little stiff in his acting. Jenkins—he did a good job in the last part. They picked the right man: a cunning son of a bitch.”

Several of the defectors would go on to star in other movies. Abshier died in 1983 after suffering a heart attack; Parrish died, also of health problems, in the late nineties. In the early 2000s, Jenkins’s wife—who was Japanese, and had allegedly been kidnapped and brought to North Korea to teach the language to spies—was permitted to return to Japan; eventually, Jenkins was allowed to join her. His departure from North Korea and claims—in interviews and, later, a book—about the brutality of life there attracted significant international media attention. He was incarcerated for a time in a US military jail as punishment for his original defection, but went on to become something of a celebrity in Japan, where The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood found him, in 2013, selling crackers and posing for photos with tourists. He died in 2017.

Jenkins’s book is one key source of information on the defectors’ experience in North Korea. Another is Crossing the Line, a 2006 British-made documentary that followed Dresnok inside the country as he went fishing with friends (who called him “Arthur,” after his role in Unsung Heroes) and walked among the hulking monuments of Pyongyang, the capital. The filmmakers, Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, had filmed inside North Korea twice before; accessing Dresnok took years of negotiations with the regime, but when they got to him, no questions were off limits.

Among other things, Dresnok took strong exception to Jenkins’s harsh account of their life together in North Korea, which he hadn’t heard about until the filmmakers apprised him of it. “We say in America, ‘opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one,’” Dresnok said, bitterly. “So, get the right opinion.” Dresnok stayed in North Korea until his death in 2016, which came to light the following year—at another moment of heightened tension between that country and the US—when his sons appeared in North Korean state media dressed in military uniforms. “Our father asked us to render devoted service to our great leader Kim Jong Un,” one of Dresnok’s sons said, referring to Kim Jong Il’s son and successor. In the event of war with America, he added, “we will not miss the opportunity and wipe the land of the US from the earth forever.”

After King fled into North Korea, some observers predicted that he, too, might soon find himself on the country’s silver screen. American defectors “are very useful for North Korean filmmakers because no matter how hard they try to make Korean actors look like Americans, they don’t look American,” Ahn Chan Il, a North Korean defector,
told the Times. “Since North Korea is running out of Americans to cast for its movies, Private King could prove a valuable asset.” 

Others, however, suggested that King might not be weaponized in the same way as his forebears, for reasons ranging from racism (he is Black) to a desire, on the part of the regime, not to further escalate tensions with the US or encourage more defections to a country that is thought to remain very wary of importing COVID-19. And times, and modes of propaganda, have grown harsher. While a US soldier has not defected to North Korea since 1982, numerous American civilians have ended up in detention in the country in recent years, often charged with some attempt to undermine the regime and further US propaganda aims. Some have been swiftly released. In 2016, Otto Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was paraded before a press conference to offer a tearful apology after he was accused of stealing a banner. The following year, he was returned to the US in a coma. He died soon afterward.

To return to Erik Scott’s point, the idea of defection commands an almost mythic, Cold War-tinted place in the Western imagination, but the truth of any one defection is usually messier. This can hold true in any direction. Shortly before King fled, the Washington Post’s Will Sommer published an in-depth profile of Yeonmi Park, a defector from North Korea who fled south and is now touring right-wing US media with dire warnings that America is becoming as authoritarian as her birthplace. She has become a star, but Sommer reported that various claims she has made about the poverty and brutality of her homeland seem inconsistent. 

Rather than a sui generis character, various experts see Park as a product of a growing market for horror stories out of North Korea, one that could incentivize defectors, who are often in financially precarious positions, to exaggerate their stories. Christine Hong, a literature professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied defector narratives, told Sommer that if Park’s claims are exaggerated, “no one seems to care.” The reason for that, Hong said, “is that, when it comes to North Korea, it’s basically an informational free-for-all.”

Other notable stories:

  • In a new audio documentary for CJR, Emily Russell explores how journalists listen in on police scanners to find stories—and how a rise in encryption has put that practice at risk. “Last week, hours after the New York Police Department announced a new commissioner, Edward Caban, journalists noticed that some precincts in Brooklyn had encrypted their radios,” Russell writes in an introduction. “At a time when Americans are calling for greater scrutiny of police, that change, however technical it may seem, cuts off a crucial, direct means of access. Reporters are left to rely on officers to provide information at a press conference—and that’s a problem, because departments can choose what they want to talk about, and how. Some journalists are fighting back.”
  • Yesterday, Elon Musk pushed ahead with his plans to rebrand Twitter as “X,” renaming conference rooms (“eXult”; “s3Xy”) at the company’s headquarters and taking down the “Twitter” sign outside (at least until police halted the work). The change has inspired a wave of negative reaction and derision. One analyst told the Times that Musk has “wiped out 15 years of brand value from Twitter and is now essentially starting from scratch.” Bloomberg’s Matt Levine asked why Musk bothered to acquire Twitter in the first place if he didn’t value its staff, code, brand, or userbase. And Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton imagined what would happen if top news outlets followed Musk’s rebranding lead.
  • In media-business news, Adweek’s Mark Stenberg took a deep dive into Vice Media’s road to bankruptcy. Elsewhere, the Times reports that the US arm of the cable company Altice is considering selling the financial-news network Cheddar. A syndicate of investors is close to a takeover of CoinDesk, a crypto-focused media company; the Wall Street Journal has more details. And in media-jobs news, the Chronicle of Philanthropy named Elbert Ventura, an editor at Vox, as its new editor in chief, while NPR appointed Edith Chapin as its top editor on a permanent basis following a spell acting in the role.
  • In local-news news, the Santa Barbara News-Press, in California, has shuttered after going bankrupt. Elsewhere, the Post’s Erik Wemple took the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to task for fumbling an investigation into the University of Georgia’s football program. (The paper issued substantial corrections and fired the reporter who wrote the story.) And The New Yorker’s Paige Williams reports from McCurtain County, Oklahoma, where officials were recently caught talking about killing reporters at a small local newspaper.
  • And the global soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is reportedly part of a bid to take over Cofina Media, a media group in his native Portugal with whose titles Ronaldo has feuded in the past. According to the Daily Beast, Ronaldo has taken the group’s flagship tabloid to court over “alleged privacy violations” in stories about the birth of his son and a rumor that he harassed a minor online. El País has more details (in Spanish).

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.