The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

[Book Review] Surprisingly readable – I’d half-expected dense academia or right-wing politicizing (the author is a former Bush administration official), but instead found The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future engrossing, with a great overview of North Korea, new insights into the diplomatic make-work program 6-party talks, and solid policy takeaways on the importance of increasing outside information flow into the North.

The author pushes a theory, neojuche revivalism (“juche,” itself commonly translated as “self-reliance,” is North Korea’s governing ideology, pg. 410), which seems to have lost some saliency with the death of Kim Jong-il and the changes in personnel and governing structure taking place under his son. According to Cha, the new/updated ideology is a “return to a conservative and hard-line juche ideology of the 1950s and 1960s,” when the North was ahead of the South technologically and economically (pg. 410).

Though the theory sounds mildly interesting, North Korea’s opaqueness means it can’t really be tested, nor does it provide much policy-level utility, especially given the ongoing leadership changes.

The book’s strength is in highlighting the importance of using “all means possible to increase the flow of information from the outside world into North Korea” (pg. 461). Since, “without control of information, there is no [North Korean] ideology,” which means there is no North Korea (pg. 461).

A strikingly large number of North Korean specialists have coalesced around this information-focused policy option as a new tool for dealing with the North, one that breaks the decades-old paradigm of the same old carrots (oil, food, cash, etc.) coupled with the same old sticks (economic sanctions, military options, UN resolutions, etc.). Cha even gets the style of information campaign correct, insisting it needn’t be overtly political, that it simply needs to “puncture the bubble of propaganda that suffocates the people” of North Korea (pg. 461).

The book’s low point (pg. 223), to the extent I wonder if it’s some sort of inside joke, is when Cha uses University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings as his North Korean missile expert. Cumings is a lot of things, but few would confuse him with a military technology expert.

Aside from that oddity, and Cha’s harping on his ‘neojuche revivalism’ pet theory, the book is an excellent, enjoyable read – perfect for anyone interested in North Korea.

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