“A meaty, fast-paced portrait of North Korean society, economy, politics and foreign policy.” -Foreign Affairs
The definitive account of North Korea, its veiled past and uncertain future, from the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council
In The Impossible State, seasoned international-policy expert and lauded scholar Victor Cha pulls back the curtain on this controversial and isolated country, 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.
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About the Author
Victor Cha served in the White House as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. He currently holds the D. S. Song-KF Chair in Government and Asian Studies at Georgetown University and is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Table of Contents
A Note on the Korean Text ix
Glossary of Acronyms and Abbreviations xi
1 Contradictions 1
2 The Best Days 19
3 All in the Family 64
4 Five Bad Decisions 110
5 The Worst Place on Earth 162
6 The Logic of Deterrence 212
7 Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) 247
8 Neighbors 315
9 Approaching Unification 386
10 The End is Near 427
What People are Saying About This
“Ask those who deal with national security what worries them most and at the top of the list or near it you’ll always find North Korea, a place about which we know little to nothing. That’s why Victor Cha’s book is so valuable.”
“The Impossible State is provocative, frightening, and never more relevant than today as an untested new leader takes charge of the world’s most unpredictable nuclear power.”
“A powerful portrait of one of the world’s most troubled and troublesome countries [and] a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of recent American foreign policy by a leading official. . . . A must-read combination for anybody interested in Korea, east Asia, or global security more generally.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book covers everything about North Korea and the international problems on the peninsula. I have read many books on the topic and this is the best overall read filled with personal details negotiating with North Korea as well as working in government policy. It is easy to read, well organized and insightful. The stories of meeting real people involved in the six party talks make it more easy to understand the complexities of a very difficult situation. The author is straight forward and honest. I am glad my wife told me about it. Highly recommended.
Incredile insight into an incredibly isolated people...and a regime that appears to have no end in sight. The research and personal knowledge of Cho made this the most captivating read I've had in a long time. A great follow-up to this one is The Aquariums of Pyongyang.
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.