After defecting, Dresnok worked as an actor in propaganda films, some directed by Kim Jong-il, and as an English teacher in Pyongyang. He was featured on the CBS magazine program 60 Minutes on January 28, 2007, as the last U.S. defector alive in North Korea. He was also the subject of a documentary film, Crossing the Line, by British filmmakers Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, which was shown at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Dresnok was born in Norfolk, Virginia. His father was Joseph Dresnok I (1917–1978). His parents divorced when he was ten years old, and he was briefly raised by his father in Pennsylvania; his mother and younger brother Joseph Dresnok II never again came into contact with them. Dresnok was placed in a foster home, dropped out of high school, and joined the Army the day after his 17th birthday.
Dresnok's first military service was two years spent in West Germany. After returning to the United States and finding out that his wife had left him for another man, he reenlisted and was sent to South Korea. He was a Private First Class with a U.S. Army unit along the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in the early 1960s. Soon after his arrival, he found himself facing a court martial for forging signatures on paperwork that gave him permission to leave the base which, ultimately, led to his going AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
Unwilling to face punishment, on August 15, 1962, while his fellow soldiers were eating lunch, he ran across a minefield in broad daylight into North Korean territory, where he was quickly apprehended by North Korean soldiers. Dresnok was taken by train to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and interrogated.
"I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything. I was finished. There's only one place to go", Dresnok said in an interview. "On August 15th, at noon in broad daylight when everybody was eating lunch, I hit the road. Yes, I was afraid. Am I gonna live or die? And when I stepped into the minefield and I seen it with my own eyes, I started sweating. I crossed over, looking for my new life."
Dresnok met Larry Allen Abshier, another U.S. defector, soon after his arrival. Eventually there were four of them: Dresnok, Abshier, Jerry Parrish, and Charles Robert Jenkins. The men lived together and participated in several propaganda efforts on behalf of the North Korean government. They appeared on magazine covers and used loudspeakers to try to persuade more U.S. soldiers at the border to defect. They did not wish to remain in North Korea indefinitely at first. In 1966, the four men tried to leave North Korea by seeking asylum at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, but the embassy immediately turned them over to North Korean authorities. After that, Dresnok decided to settle in North Korea.
Beginning in 1978, he was cast in several North Korean films, including the 20-part series Unsung Heroes (as an American villain), and became a celebrity in the country as a result. He was called "Arthur" by his Korean friends, after the character he played in the series. He also translated some of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's writings into English.
In his book The Reluctant Communist, Jenkins claims that Dresnok was a bully, betraying the other Americans' confidences to the North Koreans, and beating up Jenkins on 30 or more occasions on the orders of their Korean handlers. In the documentary Crossing the Line, Dresnok vehemently denies these allegations.
Dresnok asserts that "because of the sanctions of the US Government and Japanese", during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, he was always given his full food ration by the government. "Why? Why do they let their own people starve to death to feed an American?", he asked. "The Great Leader has given us a special solicitude. The government is going to take care of me until my dying day."
In December 1959, Dresnok married Kathleen Ringwood, a 19-year-old from New York. In Crossing the Line, Dresnok explains that after getting married at a young age, he was deployed in West Germany for two years while she remained in the U.S. He prided himself on "truly loving her and being loyal to her", but when he returned, he found out that she was already in another relationship. He was quoted as saying, "The good thing was that she did not get pregnant by me because I had promised that I would never abandon my children." However, they remained married until after his defection in 1962. She filed for divorce the next year, citing "willful desertion" on his part as grounds.
Dresnok was married twice more after defecting to North Korea. The first was to a Romanian woman, Doina Bumbea (referred to as "Dona" in Jenkins' autobiography), with whom he had two sons, Theodore "Ted" Ricardo Dresnok (born 1980) and James Gabriel Dresnok (born c. 1982). Bumbea supposedly worked at the Romanian Embassy, but some accounts say that she never worked there and was in fact an abductee taken by the North Korean secret service. According to Bumbea's family, she was living in Italy as an art student when she vanished, after telling people that she had met a man who promised to help arrange exhibitions of her art in Asia. After viewing Crossing the Line and seeing one of Dresnok's sons, Bumbea's brother stated he bore a startling resemblance to his missing sister. According to Jenkins's book, Bumbea was abducted in order to be the wife of one of the American deserters. The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs's website says that in 2007 Romania asked North Korea to explain Bumbea's abduction but it did not receive an answer. Bumbea reportedly died of lung cancer in 1997.
After Bumbea's death, Dresnok married his third wife, the daughter of a North Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. They had a son, Tony, in 2001. The family lived in a small apartment in Pyongyang, provided along with a monthly stipend by the North Korean government. Dresnok was in failing health, with a bad heart and liver (Dresnok described his liver as "full of fat"), which he attributed to smoking and drinking too much.
His younger son from his second marriage, James Dresnok, was a student at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, where his father taught English in the 1980s. James speaks English with a Korean accent and considers himself Korean but reportedly does not wish to marry a Korean woman. James joined the North Korean military in 2014, and in 2016 reported he held the rank of taewi, rank equivalent to captain in the US Army. Both the younger James and Ted Dresnok are now married and have children of their own in North Korea. Like their father, they have also appeared as villainous American soldiers in North Korean films.
Dresnok stated that he intended to spend the rest of his life in North Korea, and that no amount of money could have enticed him back to the West. Dresnok retired and occasionally gave lectures in North Korea and went fishing "just to pass the time."
In April 2017, a Western news organization that focuses on North Korea reported that Dresnok had died the previous year. In August 2017, Dresnok's sons confirmed that he had died of a stroke in November 2016.Unsung Heroes (a.k.a. Nameless Heroes) (1978)
From 5 p.m. to 5 am (1990)
Crossing the Line (2006)