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The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future Hardcover – April 3, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“An up-close, insightful portrait. . . . The Impossible State is a clearheaded, bold examination of North Korea and its future.” (Washington Post)

“Essential reading for all North Korea watchers. . . . An informative and enjoyable read.” (Library Journal (starred review))

“Cha demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the regime’s contradictions. . . . The thesis is clear: the world’s most closed-off state needs to open up to survive, but breaking its hermetic seal may well precipitate its demise.” (The New Yorker)

“An eye-opening view of the closed, repressive dictatorship of North Korea. . . . A useful, pertinent work for understanding the human story behind the headlines.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“A meaty, fast-paced portrait of North Korean society, economy, politics, and foreign policy by an expert who has studied the regime as a scholar and interacted with its officials.” (Foreign Affairs)

“Ask those who deal with national security what worries them most and at the top of the list or near it you’ll always find North Korea, a place about which we know little to nothing. That’s why Victor Cha’s book is so valuable.” (Bob Schieffer, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent)

The Impossible State is provocative, frightening, and never more relevant than today as an untested new leader takes charge of the world’s most unpredictable nuclear power.” (Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent)

From the Back Cover

The definitive account of North Korea, its veiled past and uncertain future, from the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council

Though it is much discussed and often maligned, precious little is known or understood about North Korea, the world's most controversial and isolated country. In The Impossible State, seasoned international-policy expert and lauded scholar Victor Cha pulls back the curtain, providing the best look yet at North Korea's history, the rise of the Kim family dynasty, and the obsessive personality cult that empowers them. He illuminates the repressive regime's complex economy and culture, its appalling record of human-rights abuses, and its belligerent relationship with the United States, and analyzes the regime's major security issues—from the seemingly endless war with its southern neighbor to its frightening nuclear ambitions—all in light of the destabilizing effects of Kim Jong-il's recent death.

How this enigmatic nation-state—one that regularly violates its own citizens' inalienable rights and has suffered famine, global economic sanctions, a collapsed economy, and near total isolation from the rest of the world—has continued to survive has long been a question that preoccupies the West. Cha reveals a land of contradictions, one facing a pivotal and disquieting transition of power from tyrannical father to inexperienced son, and delves into the ideology that leads an oppressed, starving populace to cling so fiercely to its failed leadership.

With rare personal anecdotes from the author's time in Pyongyang and his tenure as an adviser in the White House, this engagingly written, authoritative, and highly accessible history offers much-needed answers to the most pressing questions about North Korea and ultimately warns of a regime that might be closer to its end than many might think—a political collapse for which America and its allies may be woefully unprepared.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1st edition (April 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780061998508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061998508
  • ASIN: 0061998508
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #499,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Timely and important book. If you are interested in North Korea, or want to know more about North Korea, buy and read this book today. Victor Cha writes well, and the prose is lean and sparkling, and free of academic jargon. Cha, an academic who teaches at Georgetown, joined the Bush administration and worked at the NSC during the Bush Administration. Cha gives concise historial background necessary to understand what is going on today. Sprinkled throughout are Cha's reflection of his own experience of working on North Korean affairs at the NSC, as well as his visits to North and South Korea (There are some surprising insights offered re President Bush). Cha's tone is measured. This book is suitable for the general reader who know nothing about Korea (other than CNN news bulletins), as well as those who have been following North Korea, but want to know more. This book is far superior to anything on North Korea written by Bruce Cumings. Time required to finish the book: 25 hours or 6 reading sessions.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been interested in North Korea for some time now and have read several books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the country. Other books approach the topic from various angles and levels of detail. Frankly, some books are so thick with detail they are impregnable for the general reader. I just wanted a book that would give me a readable, succinct insight into the society in toto, not a minute-by-minute examination of its history. The Impossible State achieves this goal by giving a readable overview of the country without getting hopelessly bogged down in minutia. I highly recommend this book to those of us with curiosity about how this dysfunctional nation operates in this modern world.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Before reading the book I had never heard of the author and have no reason to be biased.

If I could only read two recent books on this subject, I would choose this one and Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Mr. Cha's book is excellent from a foreign policy and historical standpoint, giving an unbiased history of the regime, its neighbors, and attempts to engage North Korea's leaders in dialogue. At the end Mr. Cha summarizes his gut feelings about what the regime really wants, and exposes its vulnerabilities. While his conclusions are rather grim, I think they are realistic, unlike the writings of newspaper and television pundits that we are exposed to every day. Some things I particularly liked were:
-- his observations from interactions with North Korean diplomats, sometimes when they (not the writer) were under influence of alcohol
-- his description of the mistakes made by Kim #2
-- his analysis of China's stance, how and why it continues to accommodate the Kim Dynasty.
-- his (too lengthy) descriptions of American attempts to negotiate, and the way he shows that all recent administrations have tried to engage North Korea
-- his appreciation of the ideological basis of the regime's rule (read Barbara Demick to get more info about motivations)
-- the writer did not neglect human rights issues.

The lay reader will want to skim some sections because the writer has actually included too much information. However the main value of the book is that the writer has information both from reading and from direct experience, his analysis is professional, and has a good feel for the country and its people.

I recommend this book. It is both interesting and informative.
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Format: Hardcover
Author Cha begins by describing his 2009 landing at Pyongyang International, an airport about one-tenth the size of typical international airports. When he arrived, there was only one departing flight listed on its schedule board - to Beijing.

Schoolchildren there learn conjugations by reciting 'We killed Americans,' 'We are killing Americans,' 'We will kill Americans.' Math is similarly learned via word problems that involve calculating the number of dead American soldiers. Per capita gross national income has fallen from $1,160 in 1990 to $960 in 2009. Three in 90,000 own their own car, 10% have refrigerators. Most all are vegetarians, and not by choice - beef is eaten once/year by the average N.K. citizen. The average 7-year-old boy is 8" shorter and 22 lobs lighter than his S.K. counterpart. Most defectors (now 21,000) do so for economic reasons, and 75% say they retain affection for their 'Great Leader' I, II, and III.

Forget about an Arab Spring in N.K., says Cha. And there won't be a Chinese-style modernization either - it has no credible, competent, charismatic leader such as Deng Xiaoping waiting in the wings.

N.K. originally had a considerable economic advantage over S.K., thanks to the Japanese occupiers; most of that, however, was leveled by U.S. bombing during the Korean War. Moscow and Beijing then helped it rebuild (primarily to win N.K. allegiance when Moscow and Beijing were competing), but Moscow backed out after the first three year plan when it saw N.K. focusing on heavy industry and refusing to engage in foreign trade to fill in other areas. (S.K. helped make the divorce permanent by later granting Moscow a $3 billion loan as part of reconciliation; Moscow had been providing oil at one-fourth of market price.
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