Barbed wire fence, security protection

Last week a US soldier apparently defected to North Korea. What is a defector? Why do people defect? Let’s discuss these questions and talk about some of the most famous defections in history!  

Interactive Transcript!

You Can Now Read and Listen at the Same Time With an Interactive Transcript!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Listen Here!


  • Defector (n) – A person who leaves their own country to live in another.
    • Thousands of defectors attempt to leave North Korea each year.
  • Demilitarised Zone (n) – A “demilitarised zone” is an area, agreed on by countries fighting, which cannot be occupied or used for military purposes by any country.
    • The Korean Demilitarised Zone is one of the most guarded borders in the world.
  • Propaganda (n) – information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast or published with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.
    • Schools in the country are teaching communist propaganda.
  • Espionage (n) – The practice of spying or obtaining secret information.
    • Three people were accused of espionage by the government.
  • Disillusioned (adj) – disappointed and unhappy because of discovering the truth about something or someone that you liked or respected.
    • He is disillusioned with his government.
  • Ideological (adj) – based on or relating to a particular set of ideas or beliefs.
    • We were great friends despite our ideological differences.
  • Traitor (n) – a person who is not loyal or stops being loyal to their own country, social class, beliefs, etc.
    • Benedict Arnold was a traitor during the American Revolution.
  • Intelligence (n) – secret information about the governments of other countries, especially enemy governments, or a group of people who collect and deal with this information.
    • He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency

The Defection of a US Soldier

Last week, a serving US army soldier called Travis King reportedly joined a tour of the UN-run demilitarised zone between South and North Korea. This is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world but is also a major tourist attraction for visitors to Korea.

However, Travis King wasn’t simply sightseeing. He reportedly ran across the border and is now in custody of the North Korean government. It is unclear why exactly he entered the country, but he has been widely described as a “defector” by global media.

According to press reports, King was stationed by the US army as a soldier in Korea – one of millions of American military members sent to Asia every year. He had recently been accused of assault, and was on his way out of the country due to these actions when he somehow left Seoul airport and journeyed to the border.


In the words of the US military, he crossed to North Korea “wilfully and without authorisation”. He is now presumed to be in the custody of North Korea’s military.

If this situation follows the path of similar defectors to the country, North Korea will try to get as much information as possible from him before trying to use him as a propaganda tool.

People defecting to North Korea is very unusual – the secretive totalitarian state is not usually the first destination people want to visit. And the Demilitarised Zone is one of the most difficult borders to cross: soldiers from both sides keep constant look out and it is full of landmines and traps. The last defection across the DMZ was in 2017 when a North Korean solder drove, then ran, across the border. He was shot over 50 times.

But defectors from North Korea are very common across the country’s border with China. Thousands of North Koreans each year try to flee the country, before making a long journey out of China.

I’ve used the words defect, defection, and defector a lot during this episode. But what exactly do these terms mean?

Do you want to Think in English?

I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!

What is a Defector?

In the world of history and international relations, the term “defector” refers to someone who makes the decision to leave their home country to join or support another group or nation. Defectors have always caught the public’s attention, and they have sometimes altered the outcome of wars or provided valuable intelligence to rival nations.

Throughout history, defections have occurred during periods of conflict, political unrest, and espionage. In times of war, some individuals may choose to defect to the enemy’s side as they become disappointed in their own country, or they want safety.  

Defection is not limited to military or political settings; it can also happen in various other contexts, such as espionage, diplomacy, and intelligence agencies. Spies and intelligence officers from one country may defect to another to share sensitive information or seek asylum.

North Korean Defectors

We do not yet know why the current US solder decided to cross the border to North Korea. But, Travis King is certainly not the first person to defect to North Korea.

James Dresnok

James Dresnok was an American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962, during the height of the Cold War. Disillusioned with life in the United States and seeking a way out of the military, Dresnok made the decision to cross the DMZ and enter North Korea.

Once in North Korea, Dresnok became a prominent figure in the regime’s propaganda efforts. He appeared in various documentaries and media, praising the “virtues” of the North Korean society while denouncing the Western world.

Dresnok’s defection was used by the North Korean regime to highlight the successes of their system and to portray the United States as an oppressive and corrupt society. Despite the regime’s propaganda attempts, Dresnok’s life in North Korea was far from ideal. He faced many challenges, and his life in the secretive country remained a subject of great curiosity and debate.


Charles Robert Jenkins

Charles Robert Jenkins was a United States Army sergeant stationed in South Korea who defected to North Korea in 1965.

In January 1965, while on patrol duty near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Jenkins decided to defect to North Korea. He later revealed that his reason for defection was to avoid facing combat in Vietnam, as he feared being sent there from South Korea.

Upon his arrival in North Korea, Jenkins was taken into custody by North Korean authorities, who initially treated him as a prisoner. However, he was eventually granted some freedom and allowed to live outside of confinement.

In North Korea, Jenkins was forced to participate in propaganda efforts and was featured in North Korean media as a testament to the “evils” of the United States. He also faced harsh living conditions and struggled with the isolation and restrictions imposed on him by the North Korean regime.

Over time, Jenkins married a Japanese woman, Hitomi Soga, who had been abducted by North Korea.

In 2002, Jenkins and his family were allowed to leave North Korea and travel to Japan as part of a diplomatic agreement. There, Jenkins surrendered to U.S. military authorities and faced court-martial for desertion and aiding the enemy. He was later sentenced to a reduced 30-day jail term and was granted a dishonourable discharge from the U.S. Army.

After his return to Japan, Jenkins and his family lived a relatively low-key life, away from the media spotlight. He wrote a book titled “The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea,” where he detailed his experiences and reflections on his time in North Korea.

Never miss an episode

Subscribe wherever you enjoy podcasts:

History’s Most Famous Defectors

Now I thought it would be interesting to talk about some other incredibly infamous defectors from history.

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801)

In America, the name Benedict Arnold is synonymous with “traitor.” But who was Benedict Arnold?

Born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold started his military career as an officer in the Continental Army, fighting for the American cause against British rule.

As the Revolutionary War progressed, Arnold’s commitment to the American cause began to fail. He grew increasingly disillusioned and angry at the lack of recognition he was given by other leaders.

In 1780, he entered into secret negotiations with the British, agreeing to betray the American forces. Arnold was appointed the commander of West Point, a strategic fort on the Hudson River, and he planned to surrender it to the British.

The plot was discovered just in time by American forces, but he managed to escape to the British side and subsequently became a general in the British Army.

Arnold’s defection was met with shock and outrage by his former comrades in the Americas. His betrayal was seen as an act of treason, and the name “Benedict Arnold” became synonymous with traitor and disloyalty in the United States.


The Cambridge Five

The Cambridge Five was a notorious group of spies during the early stages of the Cold War, known for spying extensively on behalf of the Soviet Union. The members of this group were all British intelligence officers (spies) who were recruited while studying at the prestigious Cambridge University in the 1930s. Their defection to the Soviet Union had a profound impact on global politics and intelligence operations.

The first two members of the spy ring to be revealed were Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. After being recruited by Soviet agents at Cambridge, Burgess worked for MI6 and later the Foreign Office. He passed significant amounts of classified information to the Soviet Union, particularly concerning British and American foreign policy.

He defected to the Soviet Union alongside Donald Maclean in 1951, shocking the Western intelligence community.

Donald Maclean was educated at Cambridge and later joined the British Foreign Office and the diplomatic service. He was also drawn to communist ideology and was recruited by Soviet agents in the mid-1930s.


Maclean was a valuable asset for the Soviets, providing them with information about British and American foreign policy, particularly during World War II. His defection with Guy Burgess to the Soviet Union in 1951 badly damaged British intelligence and further heightened suspicion of potential Soviet infiltration within the British government.

The next spy to be revealed was Kim Philby. He was also recruited by Soviet intelligence agents and later joined the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and became a high-ranking officer.

Philby’s dual role as a Soviet spy and MI6 officer allowed him to pass sensitive and valuable information to the Soviets for over two decades. Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union in 1963, after his espionage activities were discovered, strained relations between the United Kingdom and the United States.

After their defection to the Soviet Union, the members of the Cambridge Five faced vastly different fates. Kim Philby’s life in the Soviet Union was initially difficult, as he experienced suspicion and scepticism from Soviet authorities. However, he eventually found a place as a journalist and lecturer, receiving some recognition for his work on behalf of the Soviets.

In contrast, Guy Burgess struggled to adapt to life in the USSR. His heavy drinking and uncooperative behaviour led to strained relationships with Soviet authorities. Despite this, Burgess remained loyal to his adopted country and lived in relative obscurity.

Donald Maclean, after his defection, initially experienced a somewhat more successful life in the Soviet Union. He worked for the Soviet Foreign Ministry and held positions of relative prominence. However, like the others, he faced challenges in fully integrating into Soviet society and grappling with life under a totalitarian regime.

Despite living under the protection of the Soviet Union, the defection of the Cambridge Five came at a personal cost. They had left behind their families, friends, and their home countries.

Svetlana Alliluyeva

Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, was one of the most high-profile defectors during the cold war. Svetlana grew up within the inner circle of Soviet power, witnessing firsthand the grip her father held over the nation.

She had a complicated relationship with her father, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader and ruthless dictator. Despite the high position her family occupied, Svetlana struggled. Her mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, deeply affecting her emotional well-being.

Svetlana witnessed the horrors of her father’s regime, including the purges and repressions that led to the suffering and death of innocent people. She began to question her father’s actions and the ideology that underpinned the Soviet state.

In 1967, she defected to the West while on a visit to India. Seeking asylum in the United States, she was welcomed by the American government and settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

Svetlana left behind her children, friends, and her native country, never to return to the Soviet Union again. The news of her defection shocked the world and made headlines, as the daughter of one of history’s most infamous dictators chose to abandon the country ruled by her father’s legacy.

During her time in the United States, Svetlana changed her name to Lana Peters after marrying an American man. However, her life in the West was marked by struggles and difficulties. She faced challenges in adapting to her new environment and dealing with the burden of her family history.

In the 1980s, she decided to move to the United Kingdom. There, she wrote several books about her life and experiences, including her famous memoir, “Twenty Letters to a Friend,” which provided a rare insight into the personal life of Joseph Stalin.

Final Thought

What will happen to Travis King, now he has crossed the border to North Korea?

He will most likely be put in a very challenging and difficult situation. He will be viewed with a lot of suspicion by North Korea and will be interviewed and interrogated until they are certain he has told them everything he knows about the US military.

Then, North Korea will probably try to use him in negotiations with the US or other countries. This is a common tactic – North Korea is under heavy sanctions and often use prisoner releases as a way of getting a slightly better deal.

Or, if it is anything like the situation of James Dresnok, Travis King may want to stay in North Korea and be used as a propaganda tool.

From the lives of previous defectors, Benedict Arnold, the Cambridge Five, or Stalin’s daughter, we know that the life of a defector is not easy.

What do you think? Why would anyone choose to cross the border to North Korea?

Extended Vocabulary List

Become a Patreon Subscriber to Access the Extended Vocabulary List!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Vocabulary Games and Activities!

Learn and practice vocabulary from this Thinking in English episode.
Practice using 5 different study games and activities – including writing, listening, and memorisation techniques!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Matching Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Learning Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Test Yourself
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Listening and Spelling
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Donate to Thinking in English!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
Liked it? Take a second to support Thinking in English on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

3 thoughts on “253. US Soldier Defects to North Korea?: What is a Defection and Why Do People Defect? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom, it’s my first time to review.
    I just want to show my deep appriciation to all what you’re doing for us, English leaners.
    It does help me to think about this world in English.
    best wishes

Leave a Reply