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Book Review- The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

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The Debate

Book Review- The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

Despite some limitations, Victor Cha provides the most comprehensive and current book on this paradoxical state.

North Korea has often been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons – famine, human rights violations, nuclear, or ballistic missile tests, kidnapping, terrorism and military provocations against its neighbors.  The mysterious antics of the ruling Kim dynasty also attract endless speculation as to how they maintain their iron grip over this Stalinist relic of a country.  Surveying the streets of the nation’s showcase capital of Pyongyang, monumental concrete buildings and propaganda posters overlay a crumbling infrastructure with few cars and no evidence of technologies, such as laptops or smartphones, so commonplace in its southern sister city of Seoul.  Indeed, in the absence of functioning traffic lights, snazzily-dressed traffic wardens stand at empty intersections to direct the occasional passing vehicle (or ox cart), and long lines form to use retro-1960s public phone booths.  Yet, with its fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric, not-so-clandestine nuclear weapons program, and massed army ranks, the country holds the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to ransom.  How did we arrive at this “Impossible State?”

Victor Cha’s prodigiously long volume, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Random House, 2012) charts how this monolithic, dysfunctional, and dangerous state came about, and discusses future implications for the Korean peninsula and the region’s key powers- the U.S., Japan, and China.  Part descriptive narrative, part political analysis, and part personal memoir, The Impossible State gathers together much of what is already known about North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – and interprets it intelligently.  The author also adds insights on American diplomacy toward the DPRK gathered during his participation in the ill-fated “Six Party Talks” – an attempt to bring together the U.S., Japan, both Koreas, China and Russia in a bid to de-nuclearize the peninsula.

After meticulously documenting the historical path trodden by North Korea, and offering interesting sidelights on issues such as human rights abuses (especially in the Kwalliso penal camps) and its state-directed criminal activities, Cha gradually begins to propound his prognosis for the future.  Like many other North Korea watchers, Cha points to the unsustainably of the DPRK and its likely collapse.  This forecast is nothing new, and given that this manta has been repeated for decades now, we should be skeptical.  Nevertheless, Cha makes a persuasive case that the Pyongyang regime’s days are numbered and that we are entering a phase of “high risk” on the peninsula.  His argument is multi-layered and I therefore summarize some of his key propositions.

First Cha points to the untimely leadership succession brought about by Kim Jong-il’s death in December of 2011.  His replacement is Kim Jong-un, his third son – a Swiss-educated man in his late-20s, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather and erstwhile official Head of State (his death in 1994 notwithstanding), Kim Il-Sung (known as the “Great Leader”).  However, we know practically nothing about his abilities as a statesman or personality, except trivia such as his passion for American basketball and so forth  (though we do not know if he enjoyed playing “Mario Kart” or listening to the Beach Boys alongside his father (p. 80).  As Cha notes: “this is all very amusing and mysterious, but lack of information about North Korea is deadly serious (p. 16).” The new leader faces some formidable challenges in perpetuating the “impossible state.”  Untried and untested, and despite his recent promotion to Marshall of the Korean People’s Army – though he apparently lacks any military experience – he faces something of a “mission impossible” in keeping his troubled regime afloat and successfully piloting its future course.

The main dilemma is as follows: the national economy has been untenable for decades and the regime appears impervious to advice from Beijing to undertake desperately-needed economic improvements.  The same goes for the political edifice of North Korea, which is being slowly undermined from within and outside, by a failure to provide for its people, and by a trickle of information reaching its hapless citizens from neighboring countries.  Cha asserts that Kim Jong-un “needs reform to survive, but the process of opening up will undeniably lead to the end of his political control (p. 105.)”  Instead, desperate to retain absolute authority the leadership has staked all on its Songun or “military first” policy, including its nuclear weapons program, both to repress internal dissent and deter outside intervention.  As hinted at in the book’s title, Cha identifies an atavistic return to past glories embodied in what he calls a “neo-juche” policy.  In recognition that its best days of “juche” or national self-reliance (which occurred around the third-quarter of the C20th) are behind it, and with no prospect for future achievement, the regime seeks to retreat into the glory days of the past in order to sustain itself.

Though this is obviously a recipe for colossal failure in the eyes of an outsider, it is too simple just to write the North Koreans off as “crazy.” “I believe the leadership, whether it was Kim Jong-il or today centered around Kim Jong-un, is eminently rational,” states the author (p. 234).  We must remember that the regime has a sole preoccupation: to survive. With such single-mindedness it is possible to flagrantly disregard the needs and wants of the citizens under its charge and ignore its gross under-fulfilled national potential.  This is both as dangerous as it is tragic Cha argues.  Given that the DPRK is in a “losing situation,” it is quite prepared to escalate and apply a “double or nothing” logic in its policies.  This explains the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. These are desperate acts of a regime on its last legs; it has nothing to lose.  More alarmingly, it may feel that it is safe from retaliation behind its erstwhile nuclear deterrent.  This could lead it to escalate conflict under a misguided faith in (or misunderstanding of) deterrence dynamics.

Cha therefore contends that this deteriorating North Korean position, combined with an increasingly dangerous path of antagonism and brinkmanship towards its neighbors, is fueling an already combustible security situation.  Moreover, stable and experienced DPRK leadership is lacking at this critical juncture.  Having rebuffed American olive branches, put South Korea on a “hair-trigger” response posture to further military incidents, and alienated its already exasperated but only “friend” in Beijing, the book concludes that the peninsula is primed for an imminent crisis. As in the case of Pakistan, a failing state armed with nuclear weapons poses security risks of calamitous proportions. “On the Korean peninsula, I think we are gradually approaching the end of history” Cha concludes (p. 408). 

As a distinguished Korea-scholar at Georgetown University in the United States, the author is well-equipped to provide us with analysis and insights into Pyongyang’s thinking.  He has also worked as the Director for Asian Affairs in the White House's National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.  This certainly endows him with an “insider” view of American diplomacy toward Pyongyang, and indeed much of his book is framed as a journal of his experiences in the role of Deputy Head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks.  However, this does ensure that his analyses are rather “American-centric.” Clearly awestruck by his foray into Washington’s “corridors of power” the obligatory plaudits for such contentious figures as George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, though to be expected, may not resonate with his readers.  His praise for Bush’s apparent concern for the human rights of North Korea’s citizens (which resulted in the practically-moribund North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004) seems rather disingenuous when taken in a wider context.  This presidency after all was responsible a cruel and unusual record of human rights violations itself, and America’s consequent “loss of moral authority” – to borrow the words of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  Cha’s “access” is therefore an asset and a liability to the objective quality of his analysis.

Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is therefore literally voluminous (in contrast say to Bruce Cummings’ concise work on the country).  This allows for long personal anecdotes, and many (often interesting) asides, but also leads to frustrating repetition, as if it had not been properly edited.  The bastions of American academic establishment are all duly cited, but the book is surprisingly light on South Korean sources.  Considering the colossal expertise held by this constituency, this serves to further underline the nature of the purely American-centric perspective delivered here.  These limitations duly noted, this is the most accessible, comprehensive, and up-to-date book on the paradoxical North Korean state.

Dr. Thomas Wilkins is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, and Non-Resident Fellow of the Japan Research Policy Institute.