The Strange Tale Of The Western Family Trapped In North Korea

“We’re so trapped that any way we could imagine to escape would be just another part of the trap.” —Chuck Palahniuk, “Invisible Monsters”

In A Nutshell

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.

The Whole Bushel

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. A beautiful, talented Romanian artist living in Rome, she’d just been offered lucrative work in the Far East—either Japan or Hong Kong, she was told. Boarding a plane, she jetted off to start her exciting new life, only to find it spiraling into a nightmare.

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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, 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. At time of writing, 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.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
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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