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.”
Following the North’s November shelling of South Korea’s border island of Yeonpyeong, the last two KPA Journals have focused on North Korea’s artillery.
Artillery, special forces and nuclear arms are considered Kim’s most fearsome threat. If hostilities on the Korean Peninsula break out, how dangerous is this threat?
While Bermudez is unwilling to estimate the number of guns ranged on Seoul, he said the North’s deeply entrenched force cannot be underestimated.
“Anywhere shells or rockets hit in Seoul will cause damage, panic and clog roads,” he said, referring to a likely exodus if the metropolis is hit. “Can you imagine? It’d be Chuseok times five!”
Then there is the KPA’s 180,000-strong “special operations” force, tasked to hit U.S. and South Korean bases and transport hubs while generating chaos.
“I’ve spoken to defectors from these units, and I’d take an American, South Korean, British or Australian special operations soldier over a North Korean any day,” he said.
Moreover, as many of these units are air-deployed, they would be vulnerable en route.
Yet their narrow focus on missions on and around the Korean Peninsula as well as their numbers make them potent.
“The shear size of these units is notable,” he said. “It would be hard to neutralize these forces quickly during the opening stages of a conflict.”
Then there is Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile. Bermudez does not think the KPA is close to being able to create warheads with its fissile materials and believes the North has reached a technological limit in its missiles. But neither of these limitations would stop it from effectively using a nuclear weapon in a time of conflict.
“What if North Korea tells Japan, ‘If you support the Americans, you become a target,’ then they pop a nuke in the Sea of Japan?” he said.
“It would cause a debate that could paralyze Japanese support for the U.S. just long enough to make a difference.”
Bermudez stays busy with his work.
“It’s actually quite fascinating. There are very few dull moments,” he said. “When you are not running from crisis to crisis, the twists and turns are quite interesting.”
Currently, he is working on histories of North Korean intelligence operations and of the KPA in the Korean War, while updating his work on KPA special forces. He expects to be in Korea in 2011.
“I come to South Korea about once a year,” he said. “But I haven’t been to the North. I’ve heard they don’t appreciate me much.”