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

By Victor Cha

For such a reclusive nation, North Korea has garnered a great deal of media coverage, largely for its failures and hardships: Its nuclear development, years of famine and the constant stream of defectors have kept journalists and authors busy for decades. I have been interested in North Korea for some time now and have both read and reviewed several books about the country. Other books approach the topic from various angles and levels of detail. Unfortunately some books are so overloaded with so many narrative strands they are impregnable for the general reader. If one was  just searching for a book that would give a readable, succinct insight into the society, not a minute-by-minute examination of its history, then this is it. The Impossible State achieves this goal by giving a readable overview of the country without getting hopelessly bogged down in minutia.

Price: £25:00
Publication Date: Aug 2012
ISBN: 978-1847922359

Cha’s extensive years writing on U.S. policy in Asia for a variety of journals and his service on the National Security Council in the Bush administration give him a rare perspective on North Korea’s past and present. He draws upon this expertise to assert his central thesis that the state newly installed leader Kim Jong-Un has inherited is 'not sustainable.'

Cha opens by explaining how Korean social structures dating from the pre-colonial period and lingering effects of the Korean War influence both North and the South. He also traces how North Korea came to be a dynastic nation. Of note is Cha’s judicious analysis of how the state, which is nearly a synonym for the ruling family, used a 'loving mother' iconography to create an environment where citizens regard their leader with the reverence and respect accorded their own mothers. The state manipulated this filial piety, which is especially strong in Asian countries, to help pave the path for family succession.

In a section titled 'The Worst Place on Earth,' Cha movingly documents the 1990s famine and the country’s appalling human-rights record. The horrors are staggering: surgeries and amputations conducted without any anaesthesia in a collapsed health system, labour camps where prisoners are routinely tortured and reduced to foraging for bugs, bark and beetles. Cha also takes China to task for repatriating North Korean refugees who make it across the border, knowing that severe punishment and, in some cases, death, await them on their return.

Cha also skilfully weaves personal stories into the larger narrative of North Korean life. The narrative doesn’t quite rise to the heights reached by Barbara Demick in “Nothing to Envy,” which I reviewed last year, her account is of the lives of six North Koreans over 15 years, but this is more comprehensive and, in its quiet way, just as moving.

'The Impossible State' is a clearheaded, bold yet fast paced examination of North Korea and its future, society, economy, politics, and foreign policy by an expert who has studied the regime for decades. He concludes, with the prediction that the regime will fall within ten years, adding that the United States needs to talk with a reluctant China about how the two sides should handle this eventuality.