In 1962, a U.S. soldier sent to guard the peace in South Korea deserted his unit, walked across the most heavily fortified area on earth and defected to the Cold War enemy, the communist state of North Korea. He then simply disappeared from the face of the known world. He became a coveted star of the North Korean propaganda machine, and found fame acting in films, typecast as an evil American. He uses Korean as his daily language. He has three sons from two wives. He has now lived in North Korea twice as long as he has in America. At one time, there were four Americans living in North Korea. Today, just one remains. Now, after 45 years, the story of Comrade Joe, the last American defector in North Korea, is told.
Based on our work on the two North Korean films over the last five years, VeryMuchSo Productions, in partnership with Koryo Tours, has gained the trust of the North Korean authorities. This has enabled clear and unrestricted access to James Joseph Dresnok and to the North Korean-based families of the other U.S. defectors.
how the film was made
After a negotiation period of over two years, filming began in June 2004 with a two hour interview with Dresnok and Charles Robert Jenkins. The North Korean authorities considered this initial meeting too sensitive to be filmed, as the Jenkins family issue was no nearer a resolution and a final agreement on filming had not actually been signed. This was a decision the authorities would later admit to regretting, as Jenkins had a very different story to tell once he left North Korea. A small amount of filming took place afterwards which features in the film.
In September 2004, just days after Jenkins had publicly alleged that Dresnok would tie him up and beat him on behalf of the North Korean authorities, the filmmakers were in North Korea interviewing Dresnok, who had no idea of the detail of these allegations. His immediate and emotional reaction is captured in the film.
In November, having attended Jenkins’ court martial in Japan—Japanese authorities banned all filming—the crew flew immediately to North Korea to film, shooting on High Definition. This trip included an extensive two and a half hour interview with Dresnok in his home and a further hour of interviews with Dresnok and his fellow film stars.
Furthermore there was a 90-minute interview with Parrish’s wife, where she talks of her life with her husband and addresses the allegations of how she came to be in North Korea. Also filmed was two sets of interviews with the sons of Parrish and Dresnok and with their friends, as well as a tearful interview with the University classmates of Jenkins’ daughters, who had left for Japan four months’ earlier. And finally there was an hour-long interview with hospital staff, those doctors and surgeons who have treated all the Americans over the years. Among the many issues they addressed was the allegation that they botched Jenkins’ operation in April 2004.
More time was spent with Dresnok included fishing (his favourite pastime and one the four Americans enjoyed together) and bowling. Dresnok notes the irony of such an American pastime being popular in North Korea. He is filmed having his monthly heart check up. There is a visit to the restaurant where he met both his wives in Korea and a revolutionary opera. In addition, Dresnok gives a guest lecture in English at the Grand People’s Study House. Filming was suspended when Dresnok was rushed into hospital after complaining of chest pains.
The crew resumed their shoot in the United States in April 2005, tracking down the early lives of the four defectors, and noted the effect the defections had had on the friends and family they left behind, and a month later, in May 2005, arrived in North Korea for their final shoot.
NOTE: The audio goes out of sync at around 01:01 for the rest of the film, but it’s bearable, since the narrator is mostly talking behind the scenes.
Subtitles:English (where korean spoken)