North Korea generates a lot of books, but a surprising number of them are highly specialized: the nuclear issue; the Kim family; leadership politics; refugees; the famine; propaganda. But for some time, we have lacked a general introduction to the place; indeed, historian Bruce Cumings’ North Korea: Another Country and journalist Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader—both from 2004—are the last entries that really seek to cover the waterfront.
Victor Cha has solved that problem with his highly-readable The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. A work of synthesis in the best sense, the book also adds a lot of value both from Cha’s experience at the Bush administration’s NSC and from his own research. Among the many useful tables and figures in the book are an exhaustive record of the security assurances the US has offered North Korea from 1989 through 2011, a survey of Kim Jong Il’s precise itinerary on his China trips, a list of missile tests, and a great, one-page table that shows how all—all—of North Korea’s provocations have come during periods when negotiations had broken down or were suspended.
In a number of chapters, Cha reviews history with a fresh eye. For example, Chapter Two—The Best Days—reminds us that the narrative of the starving, isolated hermit kingdom is surprisingly recent. For many years, it was South Korea that looked like the basket case. Well into the 1970s, the balance of power on the peninsula was by no means as clear and Kim Il Sung enjoyed some ideological, Third-Worldist advantages from his focus on self-reliance.
Chapter Three walks through the family, while Chapter Four looks at the process of decay through what Cha calls “five bad decisions”: the early emphasis on heavy industry; the subordination of economics to ideology; the massive diversion of resources to the military; the propensity to engage in massive white elephant projects; and the failure to avoid famine. That gets it right to us. The failure to stick with a program of incremental reformism and the subsequent birth of what Cha calls “neojuche revivalism”—another bon mot we wish we had coined—placed the country on a trajectory of sustained economic decline.
Chapter Five provides a compact summary of the humanitarian disasters—the political system and gulags, the refugees, the famine.
The remainder of the book discusses the geopolitics, beginning with the logic of deterrence. Cha expresses a number of his reservations about the stability of the deterrent; these were first articulated in his highly teachable debate with Dave Kang in Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. Cha worries about our inability to deter the North Korean missile program and lower level provocations, but also fears that miscalculation could even lead to general war. We side with Kang and place a somewhat lower probability on this outcome; indeed, we are amazed about how the North Koreans can continually come up with provocations that fall just short of a serious military response: missile and nuclear tests, incidents at sea, the Cheonan and island shelling, now GPS jamming. They are masters. But of course, we can never rule out an action that the US and the ROK could simply not let pass.
The discussion of the Six Party Talks benefits from Cha’s experience, although there is the natural tendency to justify time in office. We take a somewhat more jaundiced view of the Bush administration’s follies, particularly in its factionalized first term. We believe that administrations should not be given credit for scrambling to clean up problems of their own making (our correct views on everything can be found in our recent East-West Center monograph). But in the end, we side with Cha’s bottom line that “the problem is not the United States, stupid.” The problem is the underlying choices that the North Korean regime itself has taken.
Separate chapters detail the logic of Sino-DPRK and North-South relations.
It would be remiss to agree with all that another North Korea watcher says, so we introduce at least one sour note on which we genuinely wished that Cha was right: his quite bold public statement in the New York Times that “North Korea as we know it is over” and that the regime would not survive the death of Kim Jong Il. In fact, a lot of that editorial was about how China would effectively prop the regime up by turning North Korea into a province of the PRC; we have been arguing that that process has been going on for some time and it hardly augurs the end of the regime. To the contrary.
The last chapter of the book, called “The End is Near,” introduces a lot more nuance into the NYT argument. Cha goes through a whole series of structural factors that were at work in the Arab Spring that are lacking in North Korea, including growth giving rise to rising expectations, the demographic profile (a young, underemployed population), contagion, and the partially-democratic nature of a number of the most vulnerable authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Nonetheless Cha rightly notes that we have not predicted a lot of authoritarian collapses and thus we should be preparing ourselves for the possibility. Even if we have different priors in this regard than Cha, that insight is basically right; Cha and Dave Kang have been directing a project on how to think about such contingency planning by drawing on experience in other conflicts. As for the title of the last chapter, from Cha’s lips to God’s ears.
In short, a highly readable introduction to the country, but with plenty for so-called experts to quarrel with as well.