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.
In any case, one of the most salient questions Cha grapples with is how the men and women of the DPRK can accept the coercive and repressive policies of the Kim dynasty. Mass starvation and widespread famine – which, incidentally, have led to the death of 10 percent of North Korea’s civilian population – is one form of collective control. In short, the government’s public distribution system (PDS) provides only 1500 calories of nutritional value per day to their citizens, a clear violation of U.N. international law.
North Koreans are also forced to worship the Kim family as deities. Religious pluralism, in other words, does not exist in the DPRK. According to Cha, there is conclusive evidence proving that individuals caught practicing Christianity, for example, are executed or shipped off to hard labor camps. And, frankly, even law-abiding citizens run the risk of being arrested or having all their assets seized by the capricious and tyrannical Korean Workers’ Party. (For an in-depth look into the myriad human rights violations in North Korea’s prison system, be sure to read my upcoming feature article in the April issue of Townhall Magazine, available for purchase here).
Koreans are an exceedingly nationalistic people. The reason, Cha argues, is because the Korean peninsula was invaded, overrun and occupied by foreign powers for more than 2000 years. Thus, when the Soviet Union withdrew all their forces in 1948 and the DPRK secured its sovereignty, the masses were indoctrinated by means of literature and other forms of propaganda that stressed the inherent purity and cleanliness of the Korean race. Shortly thereafter, North Korea’s founder and first leader, Kim Il Sung, officially adopted Juche, meaning “self-reliance,” as the nation’s official political ideology in 1955.
Over time, however, this seemingly benign philosophy (which explicitly embraced Korean hegemony) evolved into a bizarre personality cult. Monuments, statues and paintings were erected in Kim’s honor, serving to underscore the benevolence and greatness of the “Great Leader.” In the end, Kim Il Sung was immortalized as the first and only paternalistic savior, the god-like defender of his people from foreign imperialism and Western decadence.
Today, the ramifications of this ideology pervade all levels of North Korean society. As mentioned above, despite the litany of human rights violation committed by the regime, xenophobia and abject ignorance have allowed the ruling family to stay in power for more than six decades.
And yet, after years of studying this terrifying state, Victor Cha is perhaps the first scholar to write about the imminence of North Korea’s demise as well as the implications of Kim Jong Il’s death. On the whole, this political and cultural study sheds light on one of the most mysterious and controversial country’s in human history.
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is a ‘must read’ for any thoughtful citizen with an interest in Asian affairs. It can be purchased here.