In an engrossing and sagacious LRB review of Victor Cha’s “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” Richard Lloyd Parry takes the reader on a journey through the last few decades and on into the future of North Korea where more of the same is sensible and certain.
First, we go to Kaesong where the Choco Pie showed how North Koreans are just like everyone else–consumers and capitalists eager for new products:
Within a few months, the bosses from Seoul began slipping their North Korean workers a Choco Pie or two as a perk. In part, this was a response to the Kaesong wage regime: rather than being paid directly, salaries were processed by the North Korean authorities, which then handed over the money minus hefty deductions. The Choco Pies were a small piece of South Korean largesse, but it was difficult at first to know how enthusiastically they were being received. The fact that Orion wrappers were nowhere to be found in the rubbish bins of Kaesong might have suggested indifference, but the opposite was true: the local workers, most of them women, had quickly realised that the Choco Pies were too delicious and valuable to eat. Kaesong employees, the best paid in North Korea and among the worst paid in Asia, were hoarding their pies, and selling them on at remarkably inflated prices: as high as the equivalent of $10 a piece, a large proportion of their monthly take home pay. The cakes found their way onto the black market in Pyongyang; corrupt soldiers in Kaesong, who routinely exacted ‘fines’ from the South Korean managers, began to accept, and sometimes require, payment in chocolate and marshmallow. By some estimates, 150,000 Choco Pies were being dispensed in Kaesong every day.
Parry, the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London), then reasons that war will never happen, offering the grim assessment Clinton received when he contemplated war in 1994:
Put out of mind any notion of a decisive second Korean War. An escalation from small beginnings cannot be ruled out, but none of the parties with a military presence on the peninsula – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the North), the Republic of Korea (the South) or the United States – will embark on a full-scale attack because it would end catastrophically for all of them…
Commandos infiltrated by submarine would cause terror and havoc in coastal cities in South Korea. Thousands of artillery pieces secreted in tunnels just over the border would bombard Seoul; some of the shells would be armed with poison gas. When Bill Clinton was contemplating a ‘surgical strike’ on the Yongbyon nuclear plant in 1994, he was told that the war that would almost certainly follow would kill as many as a million people (including a hundred thousand Americans), cost the United States more than $100 billion, and cause a trillion dollars’ worth of damage in north-east Asia, most of it in South Korea – and those figures are two decades old. The guerrilla insurgency and prolonged civilian resistance, which would follow even a swift victory, would make Iraq look like a simple mopping up operation.
Cha, who served in the George W. Bush administration and was deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks, finds himself, according to Parry, in the difficult position of explaining the failures of the administration while trying to justify them (all of this done with some fascinating accounts):
Cha’s anecdotes evoke an administration in which the president’s ‘loathing’ expressed itself in frat house boorishness on the part of his diplomatic teams. At one point, officials from the State Department and the Treasury came close to a fist fight over a difference in approach. At another, members of the US delegation could be heard ‘giggling loudly’ at the film Team America, in which Kim Jong Il is represented as a grotesque singing puppet. ‘One of our members, a jaded foreign service officer, thought it would be “funny” to take the iPod into the adjacent room and show it to the North Koreans,’ he recalls. ‘We decided against this impromptu introduction to American pop culture, and probably avoided a diplomatic incident.’
Enter China, North Korea’s reluctant and frustrated benefactor and, according to all parties involved, the only player with any pull. Parry calls Cha’s reasoned conclusion that China will never abandon the North, “the most sophisticated account I have seen.” Central to Cha’s argument is China’s “economic extraction policies,” well underway across the globe and, says Cha, in North Korea:
The standard explanation points to China’s long border with North Korea and the chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers which could follow a regime collapse in Pyongyang. But Cha identifies a stronger reason: the valuable cross-border trade, and the coal, iron and minerals which China extracts from the North. Copper, gold, zinc, nickel and rare earth metals like molybdenum can be mined more cheaply in North Korea, and with even fewer concerns for health and safety. China keeps the North afloat through gifts of cash, grain, as well as ‘friendship prices’, not out of fraternal feeling, but ‘to sustain a minimal level of stability and subsistence so that China can continue its economic extraction policies.’ It encourages Chinese-style economic reforms not for reform’s sake, but because they will suit Chinese business. ‘It is an illusion to believe China will work with the United States and the Republic of Korea on denuclearising North Korea as its top priority,’ Cha writes, in a sentence devastating to American policy.
In line with what most North Korean wonks like B.R. Myers and Andrei Lankov assert, the North’s leadership has never been crazy, given its position and game plan. Parry puts this in perspective:
As a small but strategically positioned country surrounded by large and powerful neighbours, Korea was battered by invasion and exploitation for centuries. Allied victory in 1945 brought an end to Japan’s colonial rule, but replaced it with something even worse: the country’s division between two dictatorships which, until South Korean democratisation 25 years ago, were evenly matched for ruthlessness and brutality. The civil war killed millions as it lurched along the narrow peninsula and ground to a stalemate in a temporary armistice. The Korean War, in other words, never formally ended – and the Korean People’s Army has never stopped fighting it.
The end of the Cold War increased the DPRK’s already acute sense of crisis and isolation. Its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, around the time that the economy collapsed and the famine began. Just across the barbed-wire and mine-encrusted demilitarised zone is the superbly trained and equipped South Korean army backed up by American soldiers and fighter jets. In Japan there are more US troops, and a fleet of aircraft carriers, with another army to hand on the Pacific island of Guam. This is the view from Pyongyang: to the north, the predatory irritation of the Chinese and, in every other direction, lethally armed and impatient hostility. Kim Jong Un is a great deal more scared of us than we are of him – and he has good reason to be.
In the end, writes Parry, the status quo remains the only option going forward, however bitter that may be–none of the players could stomach the alternative:
The sorry truth is that North Korea’s state of political undeath suits the most powerful players in the game better than any alternative. Until twenty years ago, the desire for national reunification was painfully felt by South Koreans; today, the political and social cost of integrating the strange, impoverished people in the North makes it positively undesirable. For Japan, the prospect of a unified peninsula is exciting in the short term (new markets, a check on South Korean competitiveness), but alarming for its end result: a union of 74 million people with distinctly funny feelings about Japan. For the United States, the prospect of another nation to rebuild, with Iraq and Afghanistan barely under control, is nauseating. For China, the removal of the North Korean buffer would force a drastic renegotiation of the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific. Only one group would benefit unconditionally from change in the North: the North Korean people. But the rest of the world has always found more important things to be taken account of in North Korea than the lives of its inhabitants.