In The Impossible State, Georgetown professor and former White House advisor Victor Cha takes on the enigma of North Korea, the most isolated and oppressive regime in the world today. Professor Cha argues that the state’s economic failure can be attributed to the political leadership’s ideology and determination to stay in power. As North Korea possesses no stake in a stable Asia-Pacific region, the author concludes that the regime’s provocative behavior can be viewed as rational attempts to extract aid and necessary supplies from its neighbors. He concurs with the American policy view that North Korea’s collapse is inevitable and offers critical policy principles that the US must follow in dealing with the regime and preparing for unification.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Impossible State is the author’s analysis of the relationship between North Korea and its closest neighbors, and the implications for future engagement.
First, China. Contrary to the assumptions of the Trump administration, bilateral relations are characterized by distrust and distaste. Though China does view North Korea as a buffer territory and benefit from the country’s rich mineral and metal stores, it continues to prop up the regime primarily out of fear of the destabilizing consequences of collapse. In the same manner, North Korea is resentful of China’s extractive economic policies and attempts to control it–the author vividly portrays this relationship as a “mutual hostage” situation.
Russia’s relationship with North Korea is something of a catch-22; while it has little influence over the North’s behavior, Russia is directly threatened by its missile launches and other provocative behavior. During the Six-Party Talks, it was interesting that the Russian delegation was only influential during an impasse in negotiation; once the Russians helped to smooth hostilities and resume negotiation, they would again be ignored by the other parties. In recent years, President Putin has begun to pursue engagement with North Korea, in line with his determination to establish Russia as a great Asian power and counterbalance US influence.
Professor Cha aptly describes the blatant hostility between Japan and North Korea as stemming from “emotion over reason.” Both sides would benefit from normalized relations: North Korea would gain substantial aid while Japan would address a major national security threat. Yet the North Korean leadership remains resentful of Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. The Japanese public, meanwhile, is horrified by the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens and uniformly condemns any form of engagement with the perceived criminal regime.
Finally, South Korea. In the post-Cold War era, calls for unification from both sides reflected the competitive politics of delegitimation, as both sides sought to absorb the other. Following the financial crisis of the 90’s, South Korea steadily realized the massive political, economic, and social costs of unification. This was one of the factors that brought about the Sunshine policy, a magnanimous and transformational policy that sought to postpone unification by gradually integrating the North into South Korean society through reform. In 2008, conservative President Lee began to emphasize engagement centered on reciprocity–economic cooperation and a more conciliatory tone would only be adopted in exchange for North Korean progress in human rights and denuclearization. With the election of liberal President Moon, it is expected that South Korea will once again prioritize engagement and conciliation over a stricter insistence on North Korean concessions as a prerequisite to negotiation.
According to Professor Cha, the impossible state will not be challenging the realms of reality for much longer. By maintaining robust counter-proliferation and financial sanctions, being open to negotiation as a means of managing escalation, pursuing information and skills campaigns that target the North Korean people, and preparing for unification during negotiations with Asian Pacific countries, the international community will be able to integrate this rogue regime.