In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s unexpected death in late 2011, it seems increasingly clear to me that the United Nations – and, of course, the United States – has a renewed interest in the policies and intentions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Last February, for example, the Obama administration – in an effort to thwart an impending nuclear arms escalation – agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of “nutritional assistance” to the impoverished nation in exchange for North Korea’s acceptance of a moratorium on nuclear testing. While this suggests that the relationship between both countries has improved in recent months, long-term diplomatic agreements between the United States and the DPRK remain elusive.
Seen in this light, Victor Cha’s incisive study, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, is a timely and authoritative new book that examines the country’s historic and belligerent relationship with the U.S. After all, most readers are surprised to learn in the opening chapters that the United States, in effect, is still at war with the DPRK. Briefly stated, a cease-fire – not a Peace Treaty – ended the Korean War in 1953, and as a result U.S. relations with the North Korean leadership – which is considered to be the most enigmatic and brutal regime on earth – has been unstable ever since.
Professor Cha, an acclaimed scholar who served as the National Security Council (NSC) director of Asian affairs during the Bush administration, argues that the transition of power from the late dictator to his third son, Kim Jong Un, poses significant problems for the United States. Indeed, as a relic of the Cold War, the DPRK has survived – and at times thrived – for decades in isolation when many of the world’s most totalitarian and sadistic regimes have collapsed. And paradoxically, while the Arab Spring has swept through many parts of the globe, most notably in Africa and the Middle East, North Korea’s oligarchs continue to maintain absolute control over their hapless subjects. Dr. Cha persuasively asserts, however, that the next President of the United States (whomever that may be), will face a major crisis of governance in the region before leaving office.