Home inFocus America's Global Withdrawal (Summer 2014) The Impossible State

The Impossible State

North Korea, Past and Future

Book by: Victor Cha
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Summer 2014

What America Never Sees

Perhaps with the withdrawal of American focus from the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and South America, what remains is for the international community to focus on North Korea. With a few exceptions—notably Claudia Rosett of FDD, and AEI’s John Bolton—North Korea has been largely ignored until recently, showing up mainly as an adjunct to proliferation concerns and as an impediment to Chinese diplomatic efforts in its own region. Kim Jong-Un is an embarrassment to his patrons—and has no friends.

Earlier this year, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights reported a “stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse” in North Korea that revealed a state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world…North Korean leaders employ murder, torture, slavery, sexual violence, mass starvation and other abuses as tools to prop up the state and terrorize the population into submission.”

“The Guardian commission wishes to draw your attention that it will therefore recommend that the United Nations refer the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [the formal name for North Korea] to the international criminal court to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity,” Michael Kirby, an Australian retired judge, wrote to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Kirby said there were “many parallels” between the evidence he had heard and crimes committed by the Nazis and their allies in the Second World War. He noted the evidence of one prison camp inmate who said his duties involved burning the bodies of those who had starved to death and using the remains as fertilizer.

While comparisons to the Holocaust should be used only with great reservation, it is true that, by all measures of economic and social policy, North Korea must rank in the category of countries that are—and do—the impossibly terrible. Flood, famine, and human rights violations on an unimaginable scale, massive corruption, single-minded dedication to a heavy industry economy, the loss of one major patron (the USSR) and the scaling back of the other (China) all should have caused the government to collapse and disappear. But it hasn’t.

Victor Cha, Professor of Government and Asian studies at Georgetown University, found himself invited into the George W. Bush White House National Security Council, where he not only studied, but also traveled to The Impossible State.

Cha visits conventional wisdom regarding North Korea and then places it into historical, political, and military context—much of which is unconventional. On the other hand, Cha suffers occasionally from the limited spectrum of an academic in government service—almost everything is reduced to a series of diplomatic possibilities and short-shrift is given to the international crime that supports the state today. But those are flaws in exchange for an excellent picture of what North Korea actually looks like and how it got that way.

Many Americans, for example, are familiar with the iconic night time map showing electricity usage—South Korea and other first world countries bright and shiny; North Korea, much of China and Africa dark and isolated. But immediately after WWII, North Korea had a more productive and stable economy than did the South. Much of its infrastructure was destroyed in the Korean War (1950-53), but China and the USSR invested heavily in restoring their client and, for some years, it worked.

Five Mistakes

According to Cha, five mistakes combined to set North Korea on the path to decline and then to hasten its fall.

1. Short-Term Thinking: A centralized economy in which experts are unable to make expert suggestions or proffer expert plans, Cha points out, is the very nature of North Korean thinking; solving a short-term problem without regard for the long-term implications.

In the 1960s, the government of North Korea imported goats to establish a milk and meat industry with few costs—the goats would live off the shrubbery in the northern part of the country, which was unsuited to farming. Goats, however, being goats, didn’t know when to stop eating and stripped the terrain clean. When the next monsoon season arrived, there was no ground cover to soak up the water. The floods not only cratered the land, ensuring no future growth, but also flooded the mines, resulting in worsened food and energy shortages.

North Korea tied its growth to heavy industry, not light industry or consumer goods. With only 20% arable land, a trading economy would have made more sense. But the notion of relying on outside sources for food violated the principle of Juche. (More about Juche in a minute.)

2. The Chollima Movement: The belief that losses in the marketplace could be made up for with a superhuman push from workers operating with revolutionary zeal was a fundamental principle in North Korea. Longer hours for workers were always substituted for technology and scant resources were diverted to the military. During the 1980s economic slide, workers were asked to eat only two meals a day.

3. Debt: The 1970s were probably the right time for North Korea to undertake some debt—primarily from the UK, Japan and France—but it had no plans to service the debt by reconfiguring its economic output. Debt rose from $1.2 billion to its current $12.5 billion by the early 1990s, and there have been no efforts to pay down or renegotiate Western debt since that time.

4. Olympic Envy: With the awarding of the Olympic Games to Seoul in 1981 and the concomitant rise in countries having diplomatic and economic ties with South Korea, North Korea was forced to acknowledge its inferior economic and political position. The response was again to look for a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Projects to reclaim arable land, to build a hydrothermal plant, and to create a new synthetic fabric were among 250 plants and projects that failed at an estimated cost of $45 billion.

The Hotel Ryugyong is notable in its failure. Built as a black obelisk, it was to have been the tallest hotel in the world. However, among its problems was the inability to build an elevator shaft that could rise at the angle of the building. Esquire Magazine in 2008 called it, “The Worst Building in the History of Mankind.”

5. Soviet Abandonment: With the establishment of Moscow-Seoul relations in 1990, decades of favorable trade terms and practically free oil from Moscow to Pyongyang ended abruptly. Oil imports declined 50 percent the first year to 1.5 million tons, then to 410,000 tons, and in 1991 only 45,000 tons. The shortages rippled through the economy.

Back to Juche

There is no way to explain the citizens of North Korea, starving and brutalized yet still working for the State quietly and—in the main—loyally, without Juche. President Carter incorrectly called it North Korea’s desire for “respect” and “independence,” as in, “No thank you, I can do it myself.” Rather, Juche separates North Korea from all other countries—including South Korea—because it holds itself out as the true repository of Korean nationalism and ethnic identity. It upholds the revolution because the revolution is to preserve Korean-ness from outsiders, and it holds the leader as the true embodiment of the revolution. Many observers, Cha explains, assume the regime’s ideology is merely a bumper sticker for its brutality. However, Cha writes:

… the ideology runs much deeper than we might believe. It forms the backbone of the state’s control. Without the ideology, the state could not survive. Juche claimed its legitimacy as freedom from corrupt outsiders and posited Kim Jong-Il (then Kim Jong-Un) as leader of the state, which itself is the “loving mother” of the people. As you couldn’t disrespect your mother, you couldn’t disrespect the state.

Having installed itself as mother, father and guardian of purity and anti-corruption, the North Korean government called itself the defender of patriotism—from which comes its rabid anti-Americanism and anti-colonialism. Even among South Koreans, until the period of political maturation that led to a democratic system and economic growth, there was envy of North Koreans for their depth and unquestioning loyalty to the state. Kim Il-Sung was known to tell Communist leaders including Erich Honecker and Nicolai Ceausescu that the South Koreans would rise up against their government and seek unification with the North on Kim’s terms.

It was that psychological grip on its people that allowed the government to survive the famine of 1995-98 in which 3-5% of the total population died (the equivalent of 9.8-16 million Americans), while still spending 25% of its GDP on the military.

Cha provides a clear, well-written and coherent history of “The Impossible State” and its exercise of the most vicious and psychologically compelling instruments of power by intergenerational leaders against their people. Readers gain a sense of the what, how and why. However, as an academic, Cha is restrained in his ability to be prescriptive. His job was not to advise the Bush or Obama Administrations on political or national security policy options, and so he ends with just one more description of the deadliness of the present.

With no real reform … we see a new leadership exercising a more rigid ideology, seeking greater control … this is not sustainable. With true reform however, North Korea would open itself up ….

Well, yes. If a rotten-to-the-core country would stop being rotten; if a repressive regime would stop being repressive; if a nuclear-determined government would change its mind about the political, economic and military benefits of nuclearization in relation to regime survival; if and if…

To the extent that to know more is better than to know less, The Impossible State is a well-written contribution to understanding. But for suggesting ways the United States might maximize its interests or protect its friends, it offers little more than excellent cocktail party trivia.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Magazine.