Review of “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” by Victor Cha

Yesterday I finished The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha. Dr. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, during the George W. Bush administration.

The Impossible State can conceptually be divided into three parts. The book’s approach combines a focus on the political economy of North Korea, with some discussion of the ideology of that state. The book implies a small number of important decisions should be made regarding North Korea.

North Korea was the Normal Korea

First, Cha argues that up through the early 1980s, North Korea was the “normal” Korea. Not only was North Korea the most industrialized state per capita during its founding, even after being leveled in the Korean War, and it was behind only Japan in per capita industrialization by 1970s. When North Korea sent a peace envoy to Seoul in the 1960s, South Korea executed him. That’s the sort of craziness we expect from North Korea these days!

South Korean per capita electric consumption did not exceeded that of North Korea until 1988. Even in the early 1980s the White House appeared to consider the possibility of a peaceful unification of Korea under Northern hegemony. Even though the North had as strong cult of personality throughout this period, Kim Il Sung (the founder of North Korea) used this as a tool for political control under a seemingly technocrat state along the East German or Romanian models.

The North Korean State Collapsed in the 1980s

The collapse of the North Korean state in the 1980s appears to e the result of several severe blows

1. North Korea’s was nearing the limit of State-led heavy-industry development
2. The focus on heavy industry created a distorted economy that could not deal with the collapse of the Communist trading bloc
3. South Korea was meanwhile engaging is a better developmental model that was overtaking the North’s economy
4. The South Korean government’s policy of “Nordpolitik” diplomatically encircled the North
5. The International Olympic Committee handed Seoul the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, which prompted an incredibly poorly thought-out campaign of Northern terrorism against the South
6. The North Korean leadership transition was contested, and distorted the political leadership away from a focus on economic growth

“Neo-Juche Revivalism”

The weakest part of The Impossible State, in my opinion, is Cha’s discussion of “Neo-Juche Revivalism.” Part of this may be because it seems the book went to press about a week or so after Kim Jong-Il’s death, so page upon page will go into explaining the particulars of Kim Jong-Il’s experience, and then there will be a paragraph or so about Kim Jong-Un, Jang Sung-taek, or some other leader.

“Neo-Juche Revivalism” is the term that Cha uses to describe Kim Jong-Il’s suspicion of political reform, and desire to return to the position of strength last seen in the 1970s. While to Kim Jong-Il recent North Korean weakness of an aberration, it is not clear that the new leadership actually believes it. Nor is it clear if Cha simply uses this term to refer to the focus on power and fear of outsides that has characterized the North Korean regime for decades.

What to Do

I was surprised from reading online that Cha is considered to be “hawk.” The approach implied by The Impossible State is that any sanctions regime that does not include China will not work, as China will just increase her aid accordingly. Likewise, China is unlikely to engage in sanctions, because China’s interest is in extracting North Korea’s natural resources and using North Korean ports to help develop land-locked Jilin province (a province which has a larger population than the whole of North Korea).

China’s colonization of North Korea, therefore, should be matched by South Korean colonization of North Korea. The point is to speed up the economic connectivity of the North while containing its militarily. The regime is too self-interested to attack other countries if it believes it will be attacked in return. This, all that’s left is to rot North Korea away from within.

Blind Spots

Cha is clearly a Korean subject matter expert, but he neglects important aspects of both Chinese and Japanese politics.

With regards to China, he states that China nearly removed Kim Il-Sung from power. But the context of this claim, Cha later writes, is General Peng Dehui’s speech against Kim Il-Sung during a Communist conference. But Peng’s speech against “Kim Il-Sung” was in fact targeted against Mao Zedong, both of whom were famous for their personality cult. Thus, Peng’s speech was not a serious call to invade North Korea, but a coded call to end the Mao Zedong personality cult.

Likewise, Cha largely blames Japanese outrage against North Korea for the abduction of Japanese civilians (most of whom were females) on the Japanese.

Cha asserts

1. North Korea’s announcement of the abductions was made in good faith
2. North Korea cannot be expected to account for missing or executed Japanese civilians
3. Japan exhibited bad faith by not forcibly returning visiting captured Japanese civilians back to Japan
4. Japanese politicians cynically exploied far-right-wing outrage for their own ends.

I really don’t know what to make of these claims. They are not only morally repulsive, they don’t even fit the tone of the rest of the work. They display an ignorance of both Japanese (and Korean!) view of women, which is more chivalrous than in the west.

Summary

The Impossible State contains a fascinating brief history of the Koreas since the Second World War. It persuasively argues that North Korea is the target of economic colonization. South Korea should exploit this, and work with China in absorbing its north neighbor while developing Jilin province.

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