- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Earlier this month, a 24-year-old American named Matthew Todd Miller tore up his tourist visa while attempting to enter North Korea and shouted that that he had gone to the country "after choosing it as a shelter" and "would seek asylum," according to the country’s state-run news agency, KCNA. He was subsequently arrested by a "relevant organ" of the country’s security services, which KCNA reports is investigating the case.
For now, very little is known about the man. According to the New York Times, Miller traveled to North Korea alone and, so far, no family members have contacted the travel agency that handled his trip. But if it turns out that he is a defector, he’ll join a colorful cast of expatriate Americans who have sought Pyongyang’s cold embrace.
Between 1962 and 1965, four American soldiers defected to North Korea in an attempt to escape their military responsibilities. James Dresnok, 21, Charles Jenkins, 24, Larry Abshier, 19, and Jerry Wayne Parrish, 19, did not know one another before they fled north, but once they arrived in the country, the authorities brought them together, forcing them to live in a house where they were under constant surveillance and subjected to "re-education," which involved memorizing the political philosophy and writings of Kim Il-sung, then the country’s paramount leader, as well as studying the Korean language.
Eventually, they were forced to play Western villains in North Korean propaganda films — notably the late 1970s picture Unsung Heroes, which is about a North Korean spy working in Seoul during the Korean War. At various points, North Korea assigned the men wives, many of whom turned out to be foreigners kidnapped as part of a DPRK intelligence campaign to recruit spies.
A 2006 documentary, Crossing the Line, revealed the stark reality of the men’s lives under North Korean rule. Produced with the permission of the state, the film largely profiles Dresnok, who still lives in Pyongang with his family — and seems to enjoy it. "I don’t have any intentions of leaving," Dresnok tells the filmmakers, "I don’t give a shit if you put a billion damn dollars of gold on the table."
Dresnok has two sons from his late wife, a Romanian woman believed to have been kidnapped by DPRK agents, and one child from his second wife, who is reportedly the daughter of a North Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. Dresnok paints a complicated but sentimental picture of contemporary North Korea. Here’s a preview from the documentary:
But Jenkins conjures a harsher version of life in North Korea — and a crueler portrait of Dresnok. Jenkins managed to leave North Korea in 2003 thanks to his wife, a Japanese abductee named Hitomi Soga who was curiously repatriated to Japan in 2002. Jenkins and their two daughters were allowed to follow her out of the country 18 months later. The couple’s story is laid out in Jenkins’s 2008 memoir, The Reluctant Communist. (Foreign Policy reviewed an earlier, Korean-language version of the book in 2006). In it, he writes of his defection: "I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out."
Jenkins later appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes and challenged Dresnok’s cheery representation of North Korea. He said that when his North Korean minder wanted to punish him, he tied Jenkins’ hands behind his back and let Dresnok beat him, turning one American against another. "Dresnok is a man who likes to hurt someone," he said on television. "He feels good after he does it."
Here’s the segment:
Today, little is known about Abshier and Parrish, who both dies from health complications years ago, and never had the chance to tell their own stories.
Whether Miller has in fact joined the ranks of American defectors remains unknown, but he is not the sole American detained in North Korea. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, is currently in North Korean custody after being arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In March, North Korea freed an Australian missionary it had detained for allegedly trying to spread Christianity in the isolated nation.