August 15, 1962--Defection Attempt Sparks Second Korean War
A disillusioned U.S. Army private’s attempt to cross the 38th parallel and defect to North Korea touched off a second war in the Korean Peninsula just over nine years after the signing of the armistice that ended the first one.
Private 1st Class Joseph Dresnok, a Virginia native whose marriage had failed during a previous stint in the Army, had made up his mind to abandon his post rather than face a court-martial for forging his commanding officer’s signature on a pass into the nearby town. As he was attempting to make his way over the DMZ to reach the nearest North Korean outpost, a U.S. sentry spotted him and called for him to come back to the South Korean side of the line. In response, Dresnok fired off a round from the twelve-gauge shotgun he carried with him. The sentry immediately returned fire, and even though neither Dresnok’s shotgun blast nor the sentry’s answering bullet hit anything, the noisy exchange of gunfire was enough to persuade a nearby Korean People’s Army border patrol that an American attack on the North was imminent.
Just minutes after the sentry fired on Dresnok, U.S. outposts all along the 38th parallel came under heavy North Korean artillery bombardment, which in turn provoked retaliatory U.S. and South Korean air strikes. By nightfall, U.S. and ROK infantry were engaging the NKPA at six key points along the Demilitarized Zone, and a somber President John F. Kennedy told the American people that the U.S. was once again at war with North Korea.
In contrast to the first Korean conflict, which had ground on for over three years before concluding in a stalemate, the Second Korean War ended after just ten weeks with a decisive U.S.-ROK victory. The Soviet Union and China, North Korea’s main foreign allies, were caught off guard by the rapid pace with which events unfolded and had no time to act before U.S. and South Korean troops routed the NKPA in a series of set-piece battles that culminated with the fall of Pyongyang to U.S. Marines on October 18, 1962. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was fatally wounded as he was attempting to escape the city; his son Kim Jong Il fled to China and would later be granted political asylum there by the Mao Zedong regime. Although scattered groups of Communist insurgents would continue to harass U.S. and South Korean forces until mid-January of 1963, the capture of Pyongyang effectively marked the end of North Korea as a separate country. Without military placements able to back their bravado, Chinese and Soviet Union diplomats judged the US harshly for imperialism but kept themselves out of the war rather than facing early defeats before the bulk of their forces could move. The formal re-establishment of a unified Korean nation was announced by President Park Chung-Hee on March 2, 1963; the anniversary of that proclamation would then become a Korean national holiday, Reunification Day.
Post-reunification Korea quickly established itself as one of the strongest military and economic powers in Asia. In foreign affairs, the Korean government took a largely pro-U.S. policy line, particularly after the Pueblo incident of 1968 in which a U.S. Navy communications ship was fired upon by a Chinese submarine while on the Korean side of the China-Korea maritime boundary line. During the Vietnam War, over 30,000 ROK troops fought on the U.S. side against the Viet Cong and NVA; the Koreans also provided air support and intelligence data to U.S. forces and gave political asylum to North Vietnamese defectors. The ROK armed forces’ most notable success in Vietnam came in the summer of 1974 with a raid on the port of Haiphong by Korean air force fighter jets which destroyed thousands of tons of supplies and equipment meant for the Viet Cong.
By 1978, fifteen years after Korea was officially reunified, the ROK had the highest standard of living of any country in Asia and the third-highest in the entire world. In the 1980s, Korean athletes would make their presence felt at the Olympics, most notably at the 1988 Summer Games when the Korean women’s gymnastics team upset Romania to win the group bronze medal and the men’s boxing squad won golds in the lightweight and welterweight divisions. In 1991, Korea became the third country in the world to send human beings into space, launching a two-man capsule from the Yongbyon rocket facility on a three-day orbital flight.
The former DMZ was re-purposed into a national park complex that included nature preserves, historical and cultural museums, and a memorial site commemorating the thousands of ROK soldiers who died over the course of the two Korean Wars. The old “truce village” of Panmunjom, evacuated after the end of the First Korean War, became a private retreat for the Korean president and a meeting place for Korean and foreign officials. In Pyongyang, the headquarters of the defunct Korean Workers’ Party was converted to an archive storing millions of documents and files related to the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by the fallen Kim Il Sung regime. While the United States would substantially reduce its military presence in Korea after the Vietnam War ended, a sizable garrison would remain on station along the Korean-Russian frontier until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1988. In the 1991 Gulf War, Korea would serve as a critical transit stop for coalition troops being deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. As Korea entered the twenty-first century, its economy would enter a new era of rapid growth thanks to “green” technology and the resurgence of the country’s automotive industry.
PFC Dresnok never knew the consequences his actions had wrought; when North Korean soldiers finally sighted him, they shot him dead on the spot. His body was left to decay in the rough countryside between the northern and southern sides of the DMZ, and his fate would continue to be a mystery until 1965, when a group of hikers on a nature walk found his skeletal remains near the site of his execution. Larry Allen Abshier, a GI who had gone over to North Korea three months before Dresnok’s defection attempt, was hanged as a spy not long after Dresnok was shot. Charles Robert Jenkins, a sergeant who’d been contemplating defection to North Korea himself, changed his plans and decided instead to defect to the Soviet Union, where he would live until its collapse at the end of the Cold War.
In reality, the only shot fired during Joseph Dresnok’s defection was the shotgun round from Dresnok himself as he was walking across the Korean DMZ. He was briefly detained at an NKPA border outpost before being sent to Pyongyang; he would spend the next decade there being indoctrinated in Kim Il Sung’s juche ideology before being granted North Korean citizenship in 1972.
As of this writing, Dresnok is the only living American expatriate left in North Korea; Larry Allen Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983 while Jerry Wayne Parrish, a U.S. Army Specialist 4 who defected to the North shortly after Dresnok crossed over, succumbed to kidney problems in 1998. Charles Robert Jenkins left North Korea in 2007 and emigrated to Japan, where he subsequently turned himself in to U.S. authorities and served a 30-day jail term for desertion. The DMZ today constitutes the most heavily fortified border on Earth.