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  • The North Korean People's Army: Origins and Current Tactics
  • James E. Hoare (bio)
The North Korean People's Army: Origins and Current Tactics, by James M. Minnich. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005. xxiv, 165 pp., illustrations, maps, charts, notes, bibliography. $27.95 cloth.

There can be no denying the importance of the armed forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). Even before the establishment of the DPRK in 1948, and while the northern half of the Korean Peninsula was still under Soviet occupation, the military played a major political role. Although theoretically subordinate to the Korean Workers' Party, in the special circumstances of Korea, with two hostile regimes facing each other across a demarcation line that made no sense and that both claimed to want to sweep away, it was inevitable that the military would always be important. As in the People's Republic of China, the fact that Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in July 1994, had been a guerrilla leader against the Japanese further added to the military color of North Korea. Lines were blurred, of course, again as in China, with many members of the military taking on leading political roles as well as their formal military duties. Whether this might have changed in due course if the North Koreans had won the Korean War is a moot point. But having failed because of the United States/United Nations intervention to achieve the reunification of the peninsula, the leading role of the military was hardly likely to diminish. The increased antagonism between the two Koreas kept both on high alert, while for the North Koreans, the presence in the South of American forces to this day added to the need for strong security forces. Today, the military's dominance is even more in evidence, endorsed by the current leader, Kim Jong Il, in the "Army First" policy, which defines the military as both the defenders of and the guiding element in the state. Indeed, Kim Jong Il has been reported as dismissing the Party for failing to solve the country's problems, while praising the role of the military. Since his continued survival is probably intimately linked with the existence of strong security forces, this is an understandable position. The military not only guard the country but also guide and train the population.

There is little transparency in any aspect of North Korea, and the military are particularly careful to avoid giving away secrets. They avoid contact with [End Page 124] outsiders except of the most formal kind. As Britain's representative in Pyongyang in 2001–2002, I had precisely three such contacts, apart from a couple of briefings at Panmunjom. I accompanied the British Foreign Office's most senior diplomat on a courtesy call, I made my own formal courtesy call, and I paid a farewell call. On all three visits, I met the same vice-minister of defense, who never gave me his name, though he did once come up to me to shake my hand after a parade. I was not alone. The defense attachés of "friendly countries" such as China, Russia, and Iran complained that they never saw the Korean People's Army in the field; their only contacts were at official guesthouses or at formal banquets.

Any work that casts light on the role of the North Korean military is therefore important, particularly as the Korean People's Army does not go out of its way to allow others to know what it is doing. From that point of view, Major Minnich's work is to be welcomed. Not only does he understand Korean but he has spent much time studying the North Korean military, and at present he is posted as a political officer to the United States' forces in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). He does indeed provide a useful guide to the somewhat murky origins of the Korean People's Army, which developed out of the anti-Japanese guerrilla forces that operated in Korea and in Northeast China in the late 1920s and 1930s. He notes the existence of various groups...


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