updated 8/14/2007 11:29:41 PM ET 2007-08-15T03:29:41

The last U.S. defector in North Korea is still alive but is ailing, the director of a documentary on the former American soldier said Tuesday.

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James Dresnok’s life in the North was revealed for the first time since his 1962 defection in the film “Crossing the Line,” which opens for wider release this month in the U.S. and South Korea. The movie opened last year at the Busan International Film Festival, and has been shown at other events.

The documentary shows Dresnok to be suffering a variety of ailments from a life of hard drinking and smoking. British director Daniel Gordon said he initially had been unsure Dresnok would live to see the completed film.

“He’s still roughly alive,” Gordon said of what he was told of Dresnok’s condition when he spoke to his North Korean contacts earlier this summer.

Dresnok, in his mid-60s, has been admitted to hospitals several times but has lived through two winters since filming was completed, the director told foreign journalists.

“He’s the type of person who just refuses to listen to the advice of his doctors and will carry on drinking, I’m sure,” Gordon said.

Walked across the border
Dresnok, born in Virginia, grew up in a foster home and joined the U.S. military in his teens to seek adventure.

However, he eventually chafed at military restrictions as a U.S. Army private. He was being threatened with a court-martial for taking an unauthorized overnight leave when on Aug. 15, 1962, he walked to the North across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula.

He then started a new life in a land where Americans were seen as the main enemy of the authoritarian regime.

Eventually, at least four U.S. defectors would end up in North Korea. Two are known to have died there, and one, Charles Jenkins, left in 2004 to rejoin his Japanese wife who had been kidnapped by North Korea but returned home in 2002 with the couple’s two daughters.

Gordon said Dresnok was pleased with the completed film, where the deserter’s rough-talking style and open rivalry with Jenkins are on full display.

Like the other U.S. defectors, Dresnok also played evil Americans in North Korean propaganda films.

'Revolutionary cinema'
The producers of Gordon’s documentary hope to screen it next year in North Korea at the Pyongyang film festival.

Gordon, who has produced two other documentaries on the North, said the government did not censor the filmmakers while working in the country, but that official minders monitored them wherever they went as is done with all outside visitors.

“You can’t make a film in North Korea unless you adhere to Kim Jong Il’s ways of making revolutionary cinema,” Gordon said, referring to the North Korean leader — a well-known film buff who is reportedly actively involved in the country’s cinema.

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