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Avatar of GI KoreaBy on January 20th, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Interview with North Korean Military Expert Joseph Bermudez

» by in: North Korea

Yonhap has an interesting interview posted with North Korean military expert Joseph Bermudez

Such is the Korean Peninsula’s global profile that there are overseas experts on all aspects of Korea, from politics to literature, from martial arts to cuisine.

In the mountains of the U.S. state of Colorado, one man has carved a particularly arcane niche: Joseph Bermudez, 56, is possibly the world’s top non-Korean expert on the North Korean People’s Army, or KPA, which ranks as the world’s fifth largest with 1.1 million soldiers.

An analyst for prestigious defense publisher Janes, founder of the KPA Journal and author of books on North Korean special forces and ballistic missiles, Bermudez is a consultant for government agencies in the United States and worldwide on Kim Jong-il’s military machine.

So how did a native of middle America become a specialist on the KPA?

“I always had an interest in military history and became friends with a group of people who were military history enthusiasts,”Bermudez said in a telephone interview. “One day, one of those friends who was in government called up and said, ‘A major who is being sent to Korea needs some help with a project.’”

As a defense analyst, Bermudez’s early specialization was the Middle East and ballistic missiles; the suggested project was an overview of the KPA. However, he was able to assist the major, and he has never looked back.

“Anyone who does anything for more than 25 years gets quite good at it, I assume,” he said, adding that he now has a wealth of sources on tap.

“I read everything publicly available and have amassed a large collection of declassified intelligence documents,” he said. “I have had an even greater opportunity to meet with officials from around the world concerning the subject and have spoken to North Korean defectors.”
There seems to be two broad strands of opinion among pundits: One is that the KPA is ill-fed, ill-equipped and, barring a few elite units, a hollow shell. The other is that it is a credible, motivated and formidable force. Bermudez tends to lean toward the latter opinion.

“Compared to any Western army, the KPA is essentially an obsolescing military, but its troops are amazingly well disciplined,” he said. “There are cases where fathers and sons have served in the same units, and those units have trained for the same mission for decades.”  [Yonhap]

You can read the rest at the link, but it is easy to keep military discipline when ones entire family would be subject to being imprisoned in a North Korean gulag.  The threat of the gulag in the back of a Soldier’s mind and the need for food along with the constant brainwashing ideology are why North Korea is able to maintain a relatively well trained force in my opinion.  However, I am willing to bet that the capabilities of the North Korean military are widely divergent depending on where they are stationed.  For example I would expect front line units along the DMZ to maintain a high level of readiness, but with all the reports of corrupt military personnel along the Sino-North Korean border I suspect that those units’ discipline and training are severely lacking.  Some of the more expensive to train units like their helicopter and fixed wing pilots I would also expect are not well trained either.

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  • lirelou
    1:45 pm on January 20th, 2011 1

    In re: "…it is easy to keep military discipline when ones entire family would be subject to being imprisoned in a North Korean gulag."

    I think you are grossly overestimating the ability of people to program themselves into believing that their sacrifices are necessary for a greater good. Believing in Juche is no different than believing in the Rev. Moon, or Scientology, or in Korea's '5,000' years of glorious history, and it has the added advantage of being the doctrine of the State. North Korea is not the first time that a lot of very good people have put themselves in the service of a very bad government. But it is the only one they have. The only one that a great many of them have ever experienced. Sure, there are those who know that things in the South are better, but 'knowing' that as whispered gossip does not necessarily transform into action. It is safer to be a frog in a well, than a frog outside that well, where who knows what dangers are lurking.

    Yes, the capabilities of the KPA likely differ greatly from unit to unit, depending upon how highly the Regime values that particular unit or branch. I'd bet that the Bodyguard Corps are true Juche believers, as would be much of the SOF and front line corps. That said, there is no such thing as an army whose morale and will has never cracked, unless they've never been truly tested (Bull Run, anybody? How about the 106th Infantry Division at the Bulge.) The Norks have managed to plaster over their (general, but certainly not total) collapse in September – November 1950. And they haven't seen anything like what will come if they ever break the Armistice. But we'd be fools if we counted on that, and downplayed the potential resistance of the KPA in any general war.

  • Avatar of GI KoreaGI Korea
    2:56 pm on January 20th, 2011 2


    I think you missed my next statement where I mentioned the constant brainwashing ideology taught to the North Koreans. However by reading the various books from North Korean defectors those that weren't true die hard Juche believers still kept loyalty to the Kim regime because of the fear of imprisonment.

    Very few DPRK military members defect which is partly because of ideology, fear of imprisonment, but as well because the DPRK military get more food and resources than average citizens.

  • Tom Langley
    3:53 pm on January 20th, 2011 3

    Hopefully carpet bombing for days on end will f'up their morale if they ever invade.


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