The Americans Who Became North Korean Movie Stars
Most people would not put North Korea at the top of their “countries to visit” list. Still, in the 1960s, four American servicemen - Charles Robert Jenkins, James Joseph Dresnok, Larry Allen Abshier, and Jerry Wayne Parrish - stationed in South Korea crossed the demilitarized zone (DMZ), defected to North Korea, and became propaganda movie stars. All four chose to defect independently and at different times, each facing their own struggles that led them to that questionable choice.
Jenkins defected in 1965, as he was terrified about getting sent to fight and die in Vietnam. His solution to this? Walk across the mine-filled DMZ to arrive at a country that hated him. In his mind, he would get sent back to the U.S., and if he got punished, at least he wouldn’t go to Vietnam. Basically, he was young, desperate, and a bit dumb. The other three defectors went AWOL for different reasons, but that desperation was a guiding factor for all of them.
The four were kept in a small house where they slept on the floor. Some days consisted of basic things like translating or teaching English, while others required them to study North Korean propaganda. On the worst days, though, they were physically tortured. Jenkins had a tattoo that represented the U.S. Army, and the North Koreans physically cut it out.
In a plan just about as bright as Jenkins’ initial plans to defect, the four did try to escape once via the Soviet embassy, hoping that the Soviets would send them back to America. This did not happen, much to the surprise of no one.
Not every defector hated life in North Korea, though. James Joseph Dresnok seemed to have adapted fairly well and became known as Comrade Joe to the locals. He had sons who continue to be loyal to North Korea to this day. Oh, and when the North Korean government wanted to have the other defectors beaten, Jenkins claims Comrade Joe was up for the task of inflicting it on his fellow countrymen. (Dresnok denied this.)
Though even the three who didn’t adjust as smoothly got to experience life as minor film stars. Filling roles for a North Korean film must be hard, seeing as the country is essentially closed off to most of the world. Because of this, if they needed an American, they would turn to the four trusty defectors they had on hand (who couldn’t say no or else they would be punished), casting them as evil Americans in propaganda films, which made them recognizable to some people they’d see in North Korea.
The most famous of these, if a North Korean film could be called famous, is Unsung Heroes (sometimes called Nameless Heroes).
This horrendously long 20-part miniseries/film/thing was released between 1978 and 1981. Three Americans were given roles of evil capitalist warmongers, but Parrish played the role of a Northern Irish man who became a communist. Because his character was depicted as a good guy, Parrish was especially popular in public.
Out of the four defectors turned unwilling actors, only one ever had the chance to leave North Korea. Charles Jenkins was released to live in Japan in 2004 and lived the rest of his days there until his death in 2017. While in North Korea, he married a Japanese woman who had likely been abducted. All of the men were married to women captured from other countries. Jenkins’ wife was able to be released to Japan, and Jenkins was later allowed to join her.
Abshier and Parrish both died young in North Korea, and their deaths were supposedly from natural causes. Dresnok, naturally, spent the rest of his life in North Korea and died in 2016. While their legacies may be complicated, at least today, all four men are immortalized in one of the most bizarrely long pieces of media ever produced.
Top Image: North Korea