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 Ceauşescu’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