North Korea – The Impossible State

The Impossible State, Victor Cha, Ecco Press

For those travellers who dare to make the adventurous sojourn to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, expectation can often be met with a confounded sense of normality. Enthusiastic ideologues, or curious historians, go prepared to see a culture resembling Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but what they initially witness is something far tamer.

For a typical holidaymaker who arrives in Pyongyang, a passing glance of the city may look something like this: watching citizens walking through litter-free streets without the hassle of omnipresent military patrols; or noticing a visible absence of homeless people anywhere. Finally, one might even catch a glimpse of what appears to be a group of young, sophisticated teenagers, texting on their cell phones without any hassle from state authorities.

As convincing as this semblance may seem to the lackadaisical tourist, it is, as Victor Cha demonstrates in his new book The Impossible State, North Korea, Past and Future, simply the totalitarian-propaganda-machine at work. Beneath the veneer of this repressive regime, is a society with no access to knowledge: the key ingredient needed to fight back the oppressive forces of the state.

Cha, who was director of Asian affairs at The White House’s National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, gives the reader a comprehensive — if somewhat scattered — overview of North Korea, a country he refers to as “the impossible state”.

The book raises a number of interesting questions. Most importantly: why do the North Korean people continue to respect and revere a regime, who gorged on the finest food money could buy, while over a million of its citizens starved to death in the so called “arduous march” that happened in the mid 1990s?

Cha’s answer — and his underlying central thesis — maintains that the key to North Korea’s iron-fisted rule lies in one commodity: information.

North Koreans are taught to believe that South Korea is a nation where people eat rats and live in a crime-filled underdeveloped society. The stark reality is that South Koreans are, on average, nearly 15 times more prosperous than their northern counterparts.

Those who attempt to question the state’s God-like omnipotence are sent to one of the country’s five infamous political prison camps. Men and women are kept apart in these camps, with exceptions made for the coming together of public executions. The deliberate separation of the sexes is to avoid a new generation of so called “counterrevolutionaries” reproducing.

Any women found to be carrying a baby in these gulags are subjected to a forced abortion, or upon birth, the child is immediately killed.

The only way, Cha argues, this horrific regime can be debilitated, is through the spreading of accurate information. South Korea has been a key player in this process. In 2011, the country’s military sent three million leaflets into North Korea via hot air balloons, describing revolutionary uprisings that were unravelling across the Arab Spring.

It’s one of the many descriptions in this book of attempts that have been made to spread truth to a nation locked in an impasse of ignorance.

Moreover, Cha contends that the debate concerning unification of Korea has moved on from the Cold-War era discourse, which said that the two states could only merge when absolute victory of one side over the other took place. Instead, the common view now held, is that unification will be through the power of ideas, not through military force.

It’s the lack of access to these ideas, Cha posits, which has caused more damage than any famine, imprisonment, or other draconian human rights violations which the state has implemented.

The DPRK regime is only as strong as its ability to withhold the truth. The central argument of Cha’s book is therefore very simple: without control of information, there is no ideology, without ideology there is no North Korea in its current form.

As credible as this simple narrative works in theory, the reality of North Koreans being able to suddenly unlock their minds from this Orwellian thought-control experiment is much harder in practice. Fear is still the number one weapon used by the regime.

For example, last year, public executions in North Korea more than tripled; the number of inmates in prison camps has increased disproportionately; and the government has issued death threats to anyone found carrying Chinese cell phones or foreign currency. Despite the inexperience of the baby-faced Kim Jong-un — who assumed the role of new supreme leader following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011 — the new regime is keen to make an example of any would-be dissidents who might take the new dictator for a soft touch.

Cha’s strength as a writer lies in his scholarly knowledge of international relations theory, and Korean history, most notably in the period after the Second World War. The book’s critical flaw is Cha’s penchant for the hubristic ideology that is American exceptionalism: the idea that the United Sates is morally superior to other countries, and has a specific mission to spread liberty and democracy around the world. This argument doesn’t hold well, particularly when discussing North Korea’s possible denuclearisation — a subject Cha seems clueless on, despite his time spent working as an international security diplomat in the region.

It’s also hard to take Cha’s sermons on human rights issues seriously, when he unashamedly cites George W Bush and Colin Powell as his heroes.

This book doesn’t claim to have the answers of where North Korea will be socially, politically, or economically, in the coming years. One can only hope it’s a place where two plus two will eventually equal four.

JP O’Malley reviews books for the Economist and the Economist Intelligent Life