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The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and…
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The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

by Victor Cha

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1525118,930 (3.8)2
  1. 00
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (TheAmpersand)
    TheAmpersand: A more accessible take on North Korea with a special focus on the famine that ravaged the country in the nineteen nineties and the way that information about the inside world has slowly trickled into North Korean society has altered its citizens' worldviews and political ideology.… (more)
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I'll admit to having something of a fascination with North Korea, surely one of the planet's strangest, most awful places. I've read Barbara Demmick's "Nothing to Envy" and B.R. Meyers's "The Cleanest Race," and while Victor Cha's "The Impossible State" is wonkier than those two volumes, it's may, in the strictest sense, be the most informative of the three. Cha worked on the North Korea issue during the second Bush administration and his knowledge of the the country and region and its problems is deep and nuanced. In my opinion, the most useful facets of "The Impossible State" are Cha's recounting of North Korea's history as it relates to the Kim dynasty and his exploration of the ideology that holds the regime together. He provides an interesting history of North Korea's role in the Cold War -- when it was considerably better off than its southern neighbor -- and how this conflict continues to inform it's leader's worldviews. Cha doesn't just attibute North Korea's situation to world-historical forces, though. "The Impossible State" also contains an extensive history of the truly impressive string of disastrous decisions that North Korea's leaders have made to bring it to its current condition. Cha also explores what the oft-cited concept of "juche" means in a modern context, and includes a lot of interesting material on North Korean identity. It's difficult to know, of course, how many ordinary North Koreans believe the massive amounts of state propaganda that they're exposed to, but Cha convincingly argues that the Kim regime is so closely tied into the Kim dynasty that more North Koreans support their government than most people would think possible. This is the sort of stuff that you won't find in your average news report on North Korea. Likewise, his description of North Korea's confusing but effective negotiating tactics is, although repetitive, enlightening.

There are elements of "The Impossible State" that are probably less relevant to the average reader, though. While I found Cha's description of China and the DPRK mutually non-beneficial relationship interesting, his meticulous description of its relationship with all of its neighbors will probably interest academics and no one else. Cha, who served under George W. Bush, also gives his former boss considerable praise for his work on the North Korea issue: any lefties that still cringe when they hear Dubya's name might want to skip this one. (For what it's worth, Cha makes an effort to argue that Bush's policy towards the DPRK wasn't as disengaged as many people assume). "The Impossible State" runs a bit long, and, even though the text has been updated describe the changes that followed the death of Kim Jong-Il, it's still, at this point, somewhat outdated. Recommended to readers who have a special interest in what's often called "The Peninsula of Bad Options." ( )
  TheAmpersand | Mar 30, 2018 |
Thorough, sober, but not crackling. The mere facts of North Korean history are amazing. No matter how bad you think it is, it's worse. I confess I was unaware that the DPRK made three separate attempts to assassinate the Prime Minster of South Korea. That's crazy!

The gems here are Cha's inside views of negotiations and key actors. George W Bush read the Aquariums of Pyongyang and met with the author in the oval office, for instance. ( )
  ben_a | Sep 17, 2017 |
A fascinating look at the history of North Korea and diplomacy efforts over the years by the U.S. and other countries like China and Russia. When I hear a news story about NK--e.g. about their nuclear efforts and/or testing, or about human rights issues or religious persecution (nothing ever good!)--I wonder why more is not done to punish or stop them...this book provides an excellent perspective of why more is not done and explains the reasoning behind what IS done. It's a long book, but well written so that it's an easy read. The only thing I found challenging is the author writes more topically than chronologically so I had to try to create a timeline in my head to get a full picture of what was happening. ( )
  sdubois | Jan 6, 2014 |
An excellent overview on North Korea through the initial reign of Kim Jong-un. Victor Cha was the National Security Council adviser in multiple administrations responsible for Asia, with his primary "time-suck" being North Korea from the late 1990's-2007.

Cha does a good job describing the modern situation of North Korea, including the policy decision of China, South Korea, Japan and the US to prop up the Kim regime (along with well meaning NGO's that prop up the regime through the aid they naively send there). He portrays the differences between the communist elite and the regular North Korean, as well as going into an excellent analysis of why North Koreans accept, serve and worship the Kim family.

A large part of the recent history of North Korea circles around its missile and nuclear development. Cha provides historical details on the development of weapons in North Korea, inside analysis of the 6-party negotiations and the difference in goals between North Korea and the rest of the world when they sit at the negotiating table.

For anyone unfamiliar with North Korea or looking for a good overview of the country as it is now, The Impossible State is the best I've read. Despite it's 544 pages, it is a relatively easy read and gives plenty of details and stats so that it makes a good reference book on the hermit kingdom. ( )
  mdubois | Aug 19, 2012 |
I found few books on North Korea in the rather large two-floor Barnes and Noble store in my neighborhood, and this was the only one in the Current Affairs section. So this definitely fills a need, all the more given how much North Korea is currently in the news. Cha says his purpose in the book was to give Americans needed context by telling us of "North Korea's history, the rise of the Kim family dynasty... the repressive regime's complex economy and culture." Cha is particularly qualified to be a guide. A scholar on Korean affairs he has "direct policy experience dealing with Pyongyang" as the Director of Asian Affairs in the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 under Bush. Cha negotiated with the regime as part of the Six-Party Talks on the nuclear issue. At times he seemed a bit defensive about Bush's policy, but to me he otherwise read as thorough and fair, and there is an extensive "Notes" in the back sourcing his facts. And even if he's clear-eyed about the brutality of the regime, I wouldn't describe him as a hawk--he's also aware, and educates the reader, about the reasons to act with caution.

The book engrossed me from the beginning, especially given Cha displayed both a sense of humor and insight in his first-hand observations from the first chapters. There were some dry policy-wonk-only parts, particularly in the chapter about diplomatic efforts surrounding the nuclear issue, but otherwise I found the book fascinating. My first surprise? I felt I should have known this, but it came as a surprise to me that technically the United States is still at war with North Korea. What was negotiated in 1953 was a cease fire--not a peace treaty. (And another shock was learning that the Chinese lost 800,000 lives in the Korean War.) It was a jolt to learn that North Korean school children learn their grammar with such examples as "I kill Americans. I killed Americans. I will kill Americans." (Even their arithmetic exercises feature such examples.) Second surprise was that North Korea was once relatively prosperous compared to it's rival in the South. That during the cold war generous aid from both Soviet Russia and Communist China made it both more industrialized and gave it a higher standard of living than South Korea, even if now the South has outstripped its GDP by over twenty to one. That North Korea is an incredibly repressive regime, arguably the least free nation on earth, was no surprise. But a lot of the details of the atrocities committed within and without were a shock. I didn't know, for instance, that in an attempt to assassinate a South Korean president, North Korean agents murdered the country's First Lady, or that another attempt killed half of South Korea's cabinet, or that North Korea admitted it abducted over a dozen Japanese citizens to train their agents. It's amazing to me that over the decades a full-fledged war hasn't broken out. Except that the butcher bill could reach a million lives, and as Cha explains, the North Koreans knowing this know they can violate international norms with near impunity, and extort aid to stop rattling their sabers. And the chapter dealing with the forced labor camps that rival the concentration camps of Hitler and Stalin for horror are not for the faint of heart.

I wouldn't say this is necessarily a classic that will be read decades from now, which is why I didn't give it a fifth star. I didn't think it was well-edited. I caught a few typos, some cliched phrases, awkward sentences, and some repeated points that could have been eliminated to make for a tauter book--but it is invaluable as an informative book that gives us a sense of an isolated, secretive, and dangerous country and as just published in April of this year up to date. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | May 12, 2012 |
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For my mother, Soon Ock, and my wife, Hyun Jung.
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We passed over barren and gray fields as the Gulfstream VI touched down on the empty runway of the airport.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061998508, Hardcover)

The definitive account of North Korea, its veiled past and uncertain future, from the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council

Though it is much discussed and often maligned, precious little is known or understood about North Korea, the world's most controversial and isolated country. In The Impossible State, seasoned international-policy expert and lauded scholar Victor Cha pulls back the curtain, providing the best look yet at North Korea's history, the rise of the Kim family dynasty, and the obsessive personality cult that empowers them. He illuminates the repressive regime's complex economy and culture, its appalling record of human-rights abuses, and its belligerent relationship with the United States, and analyzes the regime's major security issues—from the seemingly endless war with its southern neighbor to its frightening nuclear ambitions—all in light of the destabilizing effects of Kim Jong-il's recent death.

How this enigmatic nation-state—one that regularly violates its own citizens' inalienable rights and has suffered famine, global economic sanctions, a collapsed economy, and near total isolation from the rest of the world—has continued to survive has long been a question that preoccupies the West. Cha reveals a land of contradictions, one facing a pivotal and disquieting transition of power from tyrannical father to inexperienced son, and delves into the ideology that leads an oppressed, starving populace to cling so fiercely to its failed leadership.

With rare personal anecdotes from the author's time in Pyongyang and his tenure as an adviser in the White House, this engagingly written, authoritative, and highly accessible history offers much-needed answers to the most pressing questions about North Korea and ultimately warns of a regime that might be closer to its end than many might think—a political collapse for which America and its allies may be woefully unprepared.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:36 -0400)

Looks at the nation of North Korea, its history, social conditions, and place in world politics as it stands today and where it is likely to end up in the future.

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