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Reviewed by:
  • The Armed Forces of North Korea
  • Guy Arrigoni (bio)
The Armed Forces of North Korea, by Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.The Armed Forces of Asia Series. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. 320 pp. $59.50 (cloth), $22.50 (paper).

The Armed Forces of North Korea by Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., is the third book in the Armed Forces of Asia Series. Under senior editor Professor Despond Ball of the Australian National University's Defence Studies Centre, the series strives to deliver in-depth studies of the militaries of Asian nations. The set format of capabilities analysis encompasses a summary of the role of the armed forces national security and defense policy, their social, political and economic roles, and a summary of each military service, including paramilitary and territorial formations. The first three publications were China by You Ji, Russia in Asia by Greg Austin and Alexey D. Muraview, and The USA in the Asia-Pacific Region by Stanley Weeks and Charles Meconis.

The preface is required reading to appreciate the vision and scope of the book, the challenges confronting the author, and the inherent pitfalls and limitations of the final product. As the author points out, the book is the first English-language attempt to compile, analyze, and process what open-source information is available concerning one of the world's largest and most secretive armed forces, the Korean People's Army (KPA) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The source material Bermudez draws on consists of declassified intelligence reports; interviews with defectors, diplomats, intelligence personnel, soldiers, and officers from various countries; and his personal experience. Making sense of these disparate sources is not a new vocation for Bermudez, who has been doggedly mining these data for close to two decades. The accuracy of any work dealing with the Korean People's Army is a matter of relatives and bounded truths. It has to be accepted that a certain amount of the information in any work will be wrong, some information that was once true will be out of date, and some of the best source material may be biased and slanted to suit the purposes of those who released it. [End Page 155]

The strengths of the book are its comprehensiveness and painstaking efforts to bring clarity to the often confusing and conflicting body of material on the North Korean military. Though occasionally at the expense of readability, Bermudez seeks to avoid confusion by listing the numerous names that KPA organizations have been called by different outsider observers and the frequent name changes and cover names used by the North Koreans themselves. Bermudez does an admirable job shifting through this often conflicting data to provide as clear a picture of the KPA as one can expect. He is at his best in carefully laying out exhaustive treatments of the organizations, their structure and functions. In particular his review of the conflicting information on the intelligence and internal security organs, their roles, missions, evolution over time, and confusing nomenclature goes far to clarify a situation North Korea has spent considerable effort to keep blurred.

With no real competition in English, it is hard to detail shortcomings of the book. Bermudez does a good job of outlining the KPA's place in the national political elite, resource support, sufficient military-industrial base, manpower, and control over the conversions of those resources into military capabilities. However, there are some areas where one would like to have seen more development. It would have been interesting to see Bermudez push the data beyond military structure and more directly address the military effectiveness of the KPA, particularly the ground forces, which weigh so heavily in any discussion of the security situation in Northeast Asia. The ground forces section does seem to receive short shift. Equipment lists are relatively shorter than those for the other services, and often details are slipped into the discussion of defense production rather than being treated in the ground section. More importantly, the section has probably the briefest discussion of overall capabilities in the book, with more space being devoted to delineating structures. The operational effectiveness of the navy and air force, junior partners in the...


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pp. 155-158
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