Too Bad to Fail
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
By Victor Cha (The Bodley Head 554pp £25)
How to account for the survival of North Korea? After all, Kim Il-sung's communist state that emerged from the end of the Second World War shared most of the same characteristics as Ceau_escu's Romania, Honecker's East Germany, Mobutu's Zaire and Hoxha's Albania, to name but a few. They are all long gone, yet the same ruling family still lords it over North Korea. In more recent times corrupt and bloody dictatorships have been brought down in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and I hope soon in Syria too); even the Burmese generals have thrown in the towel. Kim Jong-il, the 'Dear Leader', was at least as weird as Gaddafi, as inhumane as Bashar al-Assad and as corrupt as Mubarak, yet when he died at the end of last year many North Koreans seemed genuinely tearful. This was followed by the perfectly orderly succession of his obscure, pimply son, who looks as if he has spent most of his brief life preparing for his new role in a burger bar. It is an extraordinary story of survival against the odds, and one that Victor Cha attempts to explain in his long, mostly absorbing and occasionally eye-opening new book.
Cha served as the director of Asian affairs on President George W Bush's National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. He dealt mainly with North Korea, and in particular served as the deputy head of the American delegation at the 'six party talks', the fruitless negotiations to persuade Pyongyang to yield up its nuclear weapons. He uses his first-hand and often surreal experiences of dealing with North Korean officialdom to telling effect in the book. But Cha is also a scholar of Korean and Asian affairs, so can take a historical view of the North Korean problem and set it in its wider international context. In fact, this is where he's at his best. With his partisan Republican hat on, by contrast, he mars the second half of the book with too much turgid score-settling against critics of the Bush administration, railing against long forgotten editorials in the dreaded liberal media, notably the New York Times.
Broadly speaking, Cha's explanation for North Korea's longevity is that the Kim family has constructed a state that is so ghastly that everyone else fears the consequences of its falling apart more than they look forward to its demise. Thus most of the foreign powers that matter, particularly South Korea and China, have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo. These countries' leaders may loathe the Kims and all their works, but they have decided that they have to pinch their noses and carry on trying to work with them - North Korea is just too bad to fail.
This thesis accounts for the lack of pressure exerted by other countries on North Korea to moderate its belligerent and apparently erratic behaviour. During the Cold War, Kim Il-sung was able to play off his two major patrons - Soviet Russia and China - against each other to win ever more money and aid. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 left only China for support, and for a while the hermit kingdom suffered, especially from terrible famines. Since then, however, China has stepped up to the plate and now single-handedly props the place up, while also giving the Kims diplomatic cover at the UN.
China does receive some direct benefit from North Korea for its help: it mines ores and maybe even rare earths there. But China's policy is mainly governed by fear. As Cha writes:
We think it should not be difficult for the Chinese to abandon North Korea, a wretched and lost cause that only creates problems for China. But our utilitarian calculations are different from those of China. For Beijing, every time the northern portion of Korea has undergone flux, the outcome for China has been bad.
China knows that if it shut down assistance to Pyongyang to punish it for, say, provoking a regional nuclear war, that could precipitate a quick collapse of the regime leading to millions of refugees flooding over the Chinese border, and worse. 'China cannot use its leverage ... North Korea knows this, and therefore uses its vulnerability and unpredictability to get what it wants from China.'
South Korea is in the same bind. Rhetorically it wants unification, yet it is scared of picking up the pieces - and in particular the bill - of a 'hard landing' were North Korea to collapse. It has been estimated that the North Korean economy is so rotten that it would cost the South literally trillions of dollars to build a new Korean state with North Korea absorbed into it. So Seoul also treads softly and stoically puts up with endless provocations.
While this explains the lack of meaningful pressure from outside, Cha also paints a bleak picture of the internal opportunities for change. Knowing well that the most dangerous moment for any tyranny is when it begins to reform, suddenly raising the expectations of previously downtrodden people, the Kims have carefully maintained the most oppressive, brutal and closed political system on earth, bar none. Thus day-to-day survival remains the primary intellectual and physical preoccupation for most North Koreans. If anything, the regime is currently reverting to the even harsher ideological oppression of its Cold War days. Then, at least, they were on a par with the South. Now the North is about thirty times poorer.
Victor Cha tries to end on a vaguely optimistic note, suggesting that, despite all this, the level of misery in the North is such that an Arab Spring-type movement might yet come. But judging by his own impressive analysis of this uniquely awful regime, it's hard to believe that this will happen any time soon.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Richard Cockett is the South-East Asia correspondent of The Economist.