The morning grog is heavy today, on account of the fact that I stayed up late watching Crossing the Line, a documentary about Virginia native James Joseph Dresnok‘s 1962 defection to North Korea. Despite some clunky Christian Slater narration, it’s a stellar flick—a deeply researched portrait of a man whose tragic background made him yearn for radical change. Dresnok, like his fellow American defectors, had little to no interest in political ideology prior to his move across the demilitarized zone; he simply wanted to escape the emptiness and sadness of his existence at that time, even if it meant risking death.
Apart from being a keen psychological study, Crossing the Line also shines a light on the stilted imagery and lingo of North Korean propaganda. Dresnok and the three other American servicemen who fled north became valuable PR tools for Great Leader’s regime. They were featured in a series of English-language magazines called Fortune’s Favorites, which were intended to encourage further defections by showing what a rip-roaring good time was to be had in Pyongyang. This publication also included alleged pages from the defectors’ diaries, which betray every sign of having been written by government hacks:
Aug. 20, 1962 — Foggy riverside of the Daidong in the morning!
At 10 A.M. we visited the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition Hall. My impression of the Exhibition Hall will never be given in a few words.
North Korea, that produces everything it wants on its own, is one of the most advanced countries in the world. . . . This was the thing I had never imagined.
Of course, all these owe to the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party and Premier Kim Il Sung.
Aug. 26, 1962 — Pleasure boats of the river Daidong were resounded with songs and laughter. It made me ponder much. How can they be so happy? Are there nothing to be worried about? Yes, they have nothing to worry about.
If such a gorgeous reality is the product of Communist system, is not the system the true ideal of mankind?
Sept. 20, 1962 — North Korea is an earthly paradise where the rights of labour and rest are guaranteed. . . . I cannot help envying heartily the happy life of the children in North Korea. Comparing with the life of the children here, the life in my childhood was too miserable.
Unsurprisingly, members of the American military proved quite resilient to these transparently false depictions of life on the other side. Blame the overheated prose if you must, but perhaps written propaganda simply doesn’t stand much of a chance of altering hearts and minds.
(Image via Conelrad)