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Korean Expert in Residence

February 15, 2011

Angelo State’s exposure in the national media has enjoyed a significant upswing since the arrival of Dr. Bruce Bechtol in the university’s new Center for Security Studies (CSS).

One of the country’s foremost experts on the military and politics of the Korean Peninsula, Bechtol became a regular presence in the media when tensions escalated between North Korea and South Korea in the fall of 2010.  He was quoted by numerous major publications and news outlets, including Stars and Stripes, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Examiner, Air Force Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Secure Freedom Radio and even the National Post of Canada.

The exposure for ASU could not have come at a better time as Bechtol and his CSS colleagues prepare to begin offering security studies, border security and cultural competency courses toward several new degree programs this fall.

“Security studies is really international studies with a focus on relevance,” Bechtol said.  “If you are a student in security studies at ASU, you are probably not in the program so you can move on to get a Ph.D.  You are probably working at an intelligence agency, are a military professional or want to do one of those things, and you want to have a better grasp of the things that will make you more prepared to face the issues that we are confronting in the international environment.”

“That is what our program is really designed for,” he added.  “Security studies, by its nature, includes culture as well as international studies, geopolitics, military studies and all that.”

CSS courses toward bachelor’s degrees in cultural competence and security studies, cultural fluency and security studies, and border security will be offered online this fall for active duty U.S. Air Force personnel who have completed an A.A.S. degree through the Community College of the Air Force.  The courses will then open up to all interested students in the fall of 2012.  Master’s degree programs in security studies and border security will be offered online and available to all interested students this fall.

“I’m excited about the prospect of the kind of curriculum that we are going to be teaching here,” Bechtol said.  “Security studies is a growing sub-field of political science.  It is also an inter-disciplinary field, more so than any other sub-field because it involves history, anthropology because of the cultural aspect of it, and things like that.  So, it is good to get in on a field that is growing, and I’m excited to be doing it from here.”

“It is going to be interesting to see how quickly we grow and how robust our program becomes over the next three-to-five years,” he added.

Having taught a similar curriculum at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and having 10 years of experience teaching online, Bechtol will be right in his element at ASU.  It is quite a position to be in for someone who dropped out of high school to join the Marines at 17.

After spending much of his early life traveling with his parents to places like Guatemala, Oklahoma, Oregon, California and Virginia, Bechtol joined the Marines in 1977, retiring in 1997 as a gunnery sergeant.

“I was an intelligence specialist, so I can’t talk about a lot of stuff that I did,” Bechtol said.  “I spent almost four years in Korea, spent time on Guam and I’ve been all over East Asia.  I served as a special advisor to a South Korean agency and as an advisor to the Philippine Marine Corps as well.  My last few years were spent in the Washington, D.C., area.”

Bechtol got his first look at Korea in 1978 as an 18-year-old lance corporal in a Signals Intelligence unit “right up in the DMZ with lots of antennas and stuff.”  He returned for six-month stints in 1987 and 1988, then was stationed there again from 1990-93.

“While I was there, I made a lot of friends and made a lot of contacts,” Bechtol said.  “Because of the nature of my work, I was able to actually work with folks who were in the South Korean government.  It really piqued my interest.”

“The Korean Peninsula is a very interesting situation with North Korea always in a state of flux,” he added.  “When I went there the first few times in the 80s, it was the Cold War, but that changed overnight in 1990.  Since then, it has been changing all the time, so it is just something that keeps my interest piqued.”

That interest led Bechtol to apply for a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at the Pentagon, where he started as a Korean analyst and eventually became the senior intelligence analyst for Northeast Asia in the DIA’s contingent supporting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By the time he left the DIA in 2003, Bechtol had picked up a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior College (1994), a master’s degree in international affairs from Catholic University (1996), a doctorate in national security studies from The Union Institute (2000) and a Master of Military Studies from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College (2001).  He jumped full time into academia, becoming an assistant professor of national security studies in the Air Command and Staff College at the U.S. Air University in Montgomery, Ala.  With the determination and zeal of a Marine, he went on to hold positions as an associate professor and then professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College before heading to ASU.

“In my mind, you are not fulfilling your destiny as a professor unless you meet all three of the icons – research, service and teaching,” Bechtol said.  “Research is my love, so I’ve also written a lot.”

Bechtol’s prolific writing résumé includes monographs, book chapters and two dozen articles in peer-reviewed journals.  But, he has gotten the most attention for his two books, Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea (2007) and Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security (2010).

Retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, director of the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism at Tufts University, called Red Rogue “a must-read for policymakers, academics, intelligence analysts and others interested in Northeast Asian political, economic and security affairs.”

About Defiant Failed State, Dr. Paul Kan, associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College, said, “This book is a strong tonic for much of the current thinking that sees North Korea as either a rogue or failed state.  Dr. Bechtol effectively argues that it is both, meaning that policy makers face a much more complex dilemma when dealing with the DPRK.  This is a very important read.”

With reviews like that, it is no wonder the national media came calling for Bechtol when they needed an authority on Korea.  But, it is not just his knowledge of the military and political aspects of Korea than makes him an expert.  He also speaks Korean, mostly self-taught, though he did take a few lessons and learned the nuances of the language from friends in Korea.

“I think it’s important that you understand the Korean language and culture if you are a Korean specialist,” Bechtol said.  “If you don’t, you are not really going to be able to put the political, military and social events into any kind of context.”

Bechtol and his Korean-American wife, Jung-Eun, have been married for 20 years and have a 16-year-old daughter, Sara Beth, who now attends San Angelo Central High School.  Having been previously stationed at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo and having made several other visits over the years, Bechtol also had a ready-made group of retired former colleagues to welcome him to the area.  One of his old Marine buddies lives on nearby Lake Nasworthy and has promised to take him fishing.  In the meantime, he will stay engrossed in his passion for Korea.

“My hobby is my research and writing,” Bechtol said.  “That is what I do for fun.”