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

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha. Harper Collins, 2012, 544 pp.

Part memoir, part wide-ranging social, economic, and political history, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future discusses the past, present, and future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and it’s hereditary rulers, the Kim family. Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, demonstrates detailed knowledge of North Korean history and politics, and his experience allows him to provide insights into recent US-DPRK diplomacy. Despite his lifetime of studying the country and his experience in government, he is unable to convincingly prove his thesis “that a growing space between the state and the people will cause a crisis of governance and uproot the foundations of the regime” (p. 13). Prediction is a difficult art, but the years since publication have not borne evidence supporting the arguments presented in The Impossible State.

One of his primary arguments in support of this is a discussion of the failure of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provides all North Koreans with rationed food. He argues that its recent failure has resulted in defectors claiming that upwards of 75 percent of food is purchased at markets rather than distributed by the state (p. 14). This seemingly indicates that market forces are taking hold in the DPRK, and evidence suggests that markets are increasingly important for the average North Korean. During the famine of the 1990s, the system almost completely collapsed, with the black market filling in to take its place. When food shortages slightly abated later, the system was revived and the markets broken by the state as it reasserted its control. Government policies revalued the currency to suppress the black market, and this resulted in some riots, as Cha notes, but these were quickly suppressed and then placated by generous increases in state wages (p. 156–58). There is little reason to believe that the regime will not maintain control of market forces into the future, even as recent evidence shows the PDS continues to provide only part of the nation’s food supply.

Additionally, people struggling to survive by peddling goods on the black market do not have much time for politics, not that there is much access to alternative political viewpoints. Propaganda is rampant; the Korean Central News Agency is fully a regime mouthpiece; few people have cell phones, and access to the internet is virtually nonexistent. Smuggled DVDs from South Korea provide glimpses of the outside world, but not generally of a political nature, and motivate desires for better lifestyles, not new political structures. The regime has taken additional precautions against outside influences, adding more guards and electrified fences to its northern border. Furthermore, there is no sign that the extreme levels of political repression are declining. The political prison camps continue to mete out their brutal punishment for crimes such as talking to journalists, being Christian, or watching the aforementioned DVDs. Relatively few average citizens are put into the camps; most political prisoners are former officials of some capacity. A decrease in repression would, however, be necessary before any real gap between the regime and population could emerge.

Economic mismanagement and political repression notwithstanding, the Kim family has maintained its control over the country through skillful political manipulation. Cha highlights that the majority of the population has a favorable view of the Kim family. Even defectors continue to harbor positive opinions, indicating the scale of indoctrination into this cult of personality (p. 210). Kim Jong-Un has gone to great lengths to create an image of himself as the second coming of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who remains popular in the country. The younger generation of North Koreans sees him as handsome and working to improve the country. He has also revitalized the juche ideology, consciously hearkening back to the relative golden years of the 1960s and 1970s when the DPRK had the temerity to declare it had “reached the final stage of socialist utopia” (p. 59). Kim controls the elite through periodic purges and economic largesse while simultaneously feeding a personality cult among the populace to prevent the emergence of an antiregime base that potential rivals could exploit. All of this help secure the regime’s hold on power.

Looking at the period from 2012 to 2016, it does not appear that the regime has weakened appreciably. Observers were hopeful that the rise of Kim Jong-Un would usher in an era of reform or that he would fail to fully seize the reigns of power, causing the regime to collapse. This has not proven to be the case. Given the crises and privations the North Korean people endured without revolution to this point, it seems unlikely that there exists a crisis that would result in Kim being unseated provided he maintains the support of North Korean elites. And as Cha notes, “no one on the outside cares enough to risk the cost” of toppling the regime (p. 13). The history presented does not show a state that is likely to change in the near future. It may be that the “forty-fifth president of the United States will contend with a major crisis of governance in North Korea,” but the arguments presented in The Impossible State do not convince (p. 13).

Ian Sundstrom, LTJG, USN

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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