The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
Overview: Georgetown University professor and long-time Korea affairs scholar Victor Cha chronicles the history and evolution of North Korean politics, economics, human rights, and foreign relations. Cha also interjects numerous anecdotes from his time as Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, where he was involved with numerous negotiations with North Korea, mostly during the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. His ability to draw on his academic and policy career gives the book narrative for both the scholarly and practitioner communities, but the focus is on history and policy, not necessarily academic theory. Note: an updated version will be released in October.
The main thesis of the book is stated at the outset. Cha argues that a “growing space between the state and the people will cause a crisis of governance and uproot the foundations” (13) of the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its founding in 1948. Because of this coming crisis, Cha asserts that the 45th president of the United States will have deal with a potentially destabilized North Korea. If this assertion is correct, this book becomes more urgent and important to give scholars and practitioners a sense of North Korea’s place in East Asia, regional actors’ interests, and US policy implications.
- Chapter 1 introduces the main arguments of the book and describes why Cha calls North Korea the impossible state. North Korea’s previous ruler, Kim Jong Il, ruled with an ideology termed “Powerful and Prosperous nation” (kangsong tae’guk), but North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, has replaced that ideology with what Cha calls “neojuche revivalism” (13). This new ideology is reactionary as it harkens back to Cold War-era North Korea. Why would North Korea want to turn back to the Cold War?
- Chapter 2 goes into more detail on the neojuche ideology, what has prompted the adoption of this ideology, and what implications it has for North Korean politics and society. Though hard to imagine now, North Korea fared relatively well during the Cold War, especially when compared to South Korea in the 30 or so years immediately following the end of the Korean War. What is juche, and what is neojuche ideology? What economic and geopolitical advantages did North Korea enjoy during the Cold War, and how did North Korea play its patron states, China and the Soviet Union, to Pyongyang’s advantage?
- Chapter 3 profiles the three Supreme Leaders of North Korea. Unique among communist countries, power has been passed dynastically among these leaders, going from father to son to grandson. Kim Il Sung was North Korea’s founding father and remains a god-like figure in North Korean society. His son, Kim Jong Il, reigned from 1994 to 2011 and pushed North Korea’s nuclear program, along with “military-first” (songun) politics. The grandson, Kim Jong Un, has ruled since Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011. What was the background of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, and why did the Soviets select him to lead North Korea? How did the son, Kim Jong Il, contribute to his father’s cult of personality, and at the same time, position himself as successor? What is Kim Jong Un’s background, and how has he built his legitimacy, despite lacking any prior military or political experience?
- Chapter 4 provides a political economic history of North Korea through the lens of what Cha calls five bad economic decisions. North Korea’s economy has experienced spectacular rise and fall since the end of the Korean War, including a devastating famine in the 1990s. Pyongyang has attributed economic woes to natural disasters and impure market forces, but Cha blame North Korea’s political structure and leadership, why? How has North Korea used illicit activities to generate revenue, and how does neojuche affect marketization of the North Korean economy and attempts to engage the Kim regime?
- Economic struggles only tell part of the story of the hardships that North Korean people have endured, and chapter 5 describes the woeful state of human and civil rights in North Korea. The Kim dynasty has employed violence, including a network of gulags, and a caste system, termed songbun, to suppress and control the population. Consequently, North Korea consistently ranks among the world’s worst human rights violators. What has been the international community’s reaction to North Korea’s human rights abuses, and how are human rights connected to the North Korean military threat? What were the causes and enduring impacts of the famine in the 1990s? Why does China continue a practice of refoulment?
- Chapter 6 describes the tenuous state of deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. Despite numerous North Korean provocations over the years, no second Korean War has broken out. North Korea’s conventional forces near the border with South Korea and the presence of US forces in South Korea have played large roles in deterring both sides from instigating a major conflict. If deterrence has held since 1953, why should the United States, South Korea, Japan, and others be concerned? Why does North Korea conduct low-level provocations, and how could miscalculation on any side lead to unintended escalation?
- Denuclearization has been the main focus of US policy toward North Korea for the last 30 years, and in chapter 7, Cha deftly chronicles the various nuclear crises with North Korea during that time. Despite decades of US diplomacy and other counterproliferation efforts, the North Korean nuclear threat has progressively grown, and North Korea now appears able to threaten regional neighbors and the US mainland with nuclear weapons. What are the origins and logic behind North Korea’s nuclear program? How has the United States and its partners attempted to address the program? What does North Korea ultimately want from its nuclear program and from the United States?
- Chapter 8 shows how North Korea has both relied on its neighbors for economic and diplomatic support and at the same time tried to limit the influence of those external supporters on North Korean society. Despite espousing self-reliance through juche, North Korea is dependent on outside aid, particularly China. Beijing maintains the closest relations with North Korea today and is Pyongyang’s only ally, despite an occasionally antagonistic relationship. Why does China still support North Korea? How have North Korean relations with Russia evolved since the end of the Cold War? How has the abduction issue hampered North Korea-Japan relations?
- Chapter 9 details inter-Korean relations from the perspective of both Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea’s closest neighbor is South Korea, as the people of the two states share a common ethnicity and history. Yet, contact between North and South has been limited and sometimes confrontational. South Korean discourse on North Korea and unification has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. What was the discourse on unification and the state of inter-Korean relations during the Cold War, and how did South Korea attempt to raise its global standing vis-à-vis North Korea? What different strategies have South Korean presidents employed toward North Korea, including the Sunshine Policy? What are current South Korean thoughts on unification, and what challenges will have to be overcome for unification?
- The book concludes in chapter 10 with thoughts on the future for North Korea and US policy. Despite predictions of collapse, North Korea has survived to this day and remains near the top of US policy makers’ agendas, but Cha forecasts a coming crisis for Pyongyang. What are arguments for and against the possibility of revolutionary change in North Korea, including Arab Spring-like change? If North Korea has been politically stable since its founding, then why would Kim Jong Un worry about political upheaval? What principles should form the basis of US policy toward North Korea going forward, and what roles are there for diplomatic, information, military, and economic instruments of US power?