By Kim Young-jin
North Korea, as one scholar describes it, is a land of contradictions. It is poor, yet heavily-armed; and isolated even though it sits in the middle of the world’s fastest-growing economic region.
And while the North’s regime steps up its old-school Stalinist ideology in a bid to retain power, the population is turning toward a more modern market economy to survive ㅡ making for a dangerous pressure cooker within its borders.
This is the assertion put forth by international policy expert Victor Cha, who predicts in a new book that the next South Korean and American presidents, after elections this year, will be forced to deal with a crisis in the nuclear-armed state during their terms.
“I believe that the forty-fifth president of the United States will contend with a major crisis of governance in North Korea before he or she leaves office,” Cha writes in “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” which goes on sale Tuesday in the United States.
“A growing space between the state and the people will...uproot the foundations of the regime.”
The work from the former White House staffer comes at a time of particular uncertainty as the North completes the transfer of power to the inexperienced Kim Jong-un following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
The regime has signaled its willingness to adhere to provocative ways, recently announcing a plan to launch a satellite from a long-range rocket next month in a move the United Nations says would break international resolutions.
The Georgetown University professor points out that while the elder Kim left the economy in tatters, he was also forced to allow a market system to provide for the populace, which resulted in increased interaction and information flow across the Chinese border as well as a new entrepreneurial class.
The gap between the people and the regime ㅡ which is reviving in full force its Cold War ideology of "self-reliance" ㅡ will be exacerbated by shifting loyalties among the power elite, Cha says. The county’s hard-hit, yet relatively educated urban poor as well as a dire food situation pose major risks as well.
Drawing from Cha’s service as director of Asian Affairs on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, “Impossible State” is a veritable briefing book on the North. From explaining the vast personality cult that keeps the Kim dynasty in power to the poor decisions that led to the fall of the country’s economy, it leads readers beyond glib characterizations to a fuller understanding of Pyongyang’s perplexing ways.
Cha, who negotiated with the North over its nuclear program, explains the challenges for Washington and other regional players in dealing with one of the world’s most difficult policy problems, and why efforts must continue despite the growing consensus that Pyongyang will never relinquish its weapons. Particularly welcome is his account of the second nuclear crisis that established the six-party disarmament talks, sprinkled with personal anecdotes of meetings with North Korean negotiators.
The announcement of the rocket launch, which many say would provide cover for the North to advance its ballistic missile technology, raised eyebrows as the action would break a recently-struck nuclear deal with Washington. Cha said the vacillation between engagement and provocative behavior is another in a litany of red flags.
Though the policy perspectives are mainly focused on Washington, Cha does devote chapters to the North’s complicated relations with neighbors such as Russia, Japan and China, its main ally. Another chapter focuses on its dire human rights situation, calling on accounts from defectors.
For readers here, perhaps the most pertinent section may be that on Korean unification, which draws from a research project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Cha is the Korea Chair and the University of Southern California. The project tackles rarely-discussed areas that would need immediate attention in the case of instability including public health and social dislocation, tricky legal issues and environmental degradation.
Of course, the country remains as opaque as ever and the author admits the best one can do is offer a glimpse into what he calls a “black box.” And while the debate over the viability of the regime is sure to continue for the time being, Cha maintains that the confluence of potentially destabilizing forces in the North merits serious discourse.
“Other analysts are not willing to make a prediction until after change happens,” he said. “I am willing to acknowledge that change may be upon us.”