Photo Of The Day

Photo: Gabriel Bumbea. The ageing picture is a heartrending trace of Doina Bumbea, a 28-year-old Romanian who was ensnared by North Korea's regime in 1978 and who never saw her family again.

Photo: Gabriel Bumbea.
The ageing picture is a heartrending trace of Doina Bumbea, a 28-year-old Romanian who was ensnared by North Korea’s regime in 1978 and who never saw her family again.

As unlikely as it may seem, there are those who have fled to North Korea, and even more shocking is that some of them were actually American. Since the Korean War, there have been 6 American soldiers who willingly crossed the DMZ and pledged their allegiance to North Korea. There are even others who chose to remain in North Korea after internments in POW camps. However, one of the most famous of these defectors is James Joseph Dresnok. A private in the Army, Dresnok ran across the minefield between North and South Korea in broad daylight in 1962, where North Korean soldiers quickly grabbed him. He has been a regular in propaganda films, almost always portraying villainous American characters. He still lives there with his third wife and his four children, and claims he doesn’t regret his decision at all. How much of that is true or false is impossible to say.

In 1978, promising young Romanian artist Doina Bumbea agreed to take a job in the Far East. It was the start of a nightmare. On arriving in Asia, Bumbea was kidnapped and smuggled into North Korea. There she was introduced to her real mission: to become the loving wife of American defector James Dresnok, now a PR tool for the regime. Together, they started a Western family in the heart of the most dangerous state on Earth. Her children remain trapped there to this day.

In 1962, Joe Dresnok was in trouble. A newly enlisted GI with few friends, a failing marriage and a discipline problem, he was due to be chewed out by his superiors for deserting his post. The reason had been a prostitute Joe was seeing near the South Korean base he was stationed on. He’d forged a superior’s signature to get to her. Now, with his chickens coming home to roost, Joe decided he’d had enough. Arming himself with a shotgun, he set out toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone. GI Joe was going to walk to North Korea.

As one of the first defectors to the Communist pariah state, Joe was a major PR coup for Kim Il Sung’s new regime. Along with three other Americans, he became part of the DPRK’s latest propaganda campaign; reading out radio messages to his countrymen about the glorious life he was living across the border. It would be fair to say his reports were exaggerated. In 1966, all four defectors escaped into the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, begging for asylum. The Russians responded by handing them back.

Yet Joe and his friends were too valuable to be just dumped in a gulag. Instead, the regime seems to have decided to make them as happy as possible. It wasn’t long after this that all four began to slowly accrue wives and mistresses, from the most improbable of places.

Fast-forward a decade, and Doina Bumbea had every reason to be happy.

In a bitter twist of fate, Doina Bumbea had already managed to get out of one tightly-controlled communist country, her homeland Romania. She married an Italian in 1970, and they left for Rome, before divorcing in 1972, her brother Gabriel Bumbea said.

Living alone, she studied fine art and became a painter. She met an Italian who claimed to be an art dealer and who proposed a job as a gallery curator in Tokyo, provided she put on an exhibit in the Far East first.

Bumbea was a beautiful, talented Romanian artist, “In 1978, there was no Internet like there is today, and she was very relaxed, an artist, so she was easy to fool,” Gabriel said. Boarding the plane, she jetted off to start her exciting new life, only to find it spiraling into a nightmare.

The plane took her to Pyongyang where she was detained and taken to a training camp. Soon after, she was introduced to Dresnok. While never confirmed, it’s been suggested women like Bumbea were chosen specifically by the regime to give the defectors something to live for. Whatever the truth, Bumbea, was unable to leave North Korea, wound up marrying Joe. They had two children, Joe Jr. and Ted. Bumbea wasn’t even 30.

Not long after, Dresnok turned deeply abusive. A fellow defector who escaped back to the West in 2004 claimed Joe was an “eager torturer.” He beat his friends to a pulp. He bullied his wife physically and emotionally. By 1981, Bumbea was desperate to escape. But there was nowhere to go. Officially, North Korea denied her existence. In 1997 she died of cancer, unable to lay eyes on her beloved Italy one final time.

The tale doesn’t end there. Joe Jr. and Ted are still trapped in North Korea under the watchful eye of their abusive father. The Kim regime denies they exist. The US State Department avoids asking about them. Despite being perhaps the only Western-looking North Koreans in existence, no one knows what has happened to them. Are they happy there, praising the Dear Leader? Or, like their mother, do they yearn to leave the Hermit Kingdom and strike out for Romania, Italy, the US? The sad truth is we may never know.

Gabriel says I have two nephews there, the oldest is Ricardo Dresnock, and the youngest is James Gabriel Dresnock. She named him after me.

“I’ve never had any contact with them. It’s impossible,” he said.

Given North Korea’s record of throwing generations of the same family into its prison camps on guilt-by-association grounds, Bumbea said he fears for his nephews because he speaks regularly at abducted family events in Asia.

He has managed to see James Gabriel’s face, at least, thanks to a 2006 BBC documentary about defectors, “Cross the Line”.

“The other abductees’ families have nothing. I have a little. It’s something,” he said emotionally.

The  story of Bumbea and kidnap victims of other nationalities was little known until Charles Jenkins, a 1965 US Army deserter who ended up stuck in North Korea, was allowed to leave with his Japanese abducted wife and their adult children in 2002.

Jenkins exposed a “spouse-sourcing” programme for at least four US deserters, in what the UN commission said was an attempt to avoid the birth of mixed-race Koreans, anathema to the regime.

Couples were also said to be forcibly paired in order to breed a pool of potential non-Korean agents.

Allegedly launched in 1977, according to testimony from Jenkins and others who managed to get out of North Korea, the programme is believed to have involved more than two dozen women.

All told, citizens of 12 countries and territories are thought to have been swept up, including Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Macao, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Romania, France, Italy and The Netherlands.

After Bumbea’s death, Dresnok married his third wife, the daughter of a North Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. They had a son in 2001. The family lives in a small apartment in Pyongyang, provided along with a monthly stipend by the North Korean government. Dresnok is in failing health, with a bad heart and liver (Dresnok describes his liver as “full of fat”), which he attributes to smoking and drinking too much.

According to Wikipedia, 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 is called “Artie” 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.

His elder 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 intends to enter the diplomatic service.

Dresnok has stated that he intends to spend the rest of his life in North Korea, and that no amount of money could entice him back to the West. Now retired, Dresnok occasionally gives lectures in North Korea and goes fishing “just to pass the time.”

N.Korea kidnap victim’s brother wants Pyongyang to come clean.

James Joseph Dresnok

History News Network: Their Father Was American. North Korea Won’t Let Them Go

The Guardian: ‘The Dear Leader takes care of me’


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