530 pages of whitewash: in his voluminous memoir, Victor Cha, George W. Bush's top Asia adviser, reveals nothing about how the administration managed to let North Korea get nukes.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
by Victor Cha
HarperCollins, 530 pp.
The North Korean regime was supposed to have collapsed by now. Indeed, for years analysts debated not if the regime would fall, but whether the landing would be hard or soft. Instead, it has become a nuclear power and continues to thumb its nose at the world, defying the best efforts of a succession of American presidents to lure the reclusive state into a constructive relationship with the rest of the world.
Georgetown University professor Victor Cha served one of the presidents who tried to strike a deal with the North Koreans, and the one on whose watch North Korea acquired nukes, George W. Bush. Cha is the first member of the North Korea team from Bush's second term to publish a book about his experiences negotiating with the North, which gives him a unique perspective. He was the first Korea specialist (and the first Korean American) to be the Asia director at the National Security Council (NSC), and now contributes regularly to the New York Times and the Washington Post, making him one of the more influential voices on North Korea both inside and outside the Beltway.
Unfortunately, his book is more than disappointing; it's just plain awful, and a huge missed opportunity. Cha not only fails to shed any light on North Korea policymaking during the Bush years, he also gets the country completely wrong.
For starters, Cha tries to spice up his book with his personal experiences in North Korea but winds up with little more than banal travelogues. At several points he lambasts CNN, Time, and, more broadly, the Western media for their shallow depictions of North Korea, but he is just as guilty. Of the more than 700 footnotes, fewer than a handful refer to personal interviews or Korean-language materials. Instead, we are presented with endless summaries of English-language sources. The book lacks the compelling narrative arc of Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick's powerful Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea or the research and rigor of Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig's The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom.
Cha's book is also almost entirely bereft of new ideas about how we should understand or deal with North Korea. The only new concept I could find is nothing more than academic-sounding nonsense: elaborating on a notion he first introduced last fall in the Washington Post, Cha describes North Korea as being in the grip of "neojuche revivalism," or a resurgence of ideology in general and a doctrine of self-reliance in particular. The problem is that ideological fervor never receded; only the slogans have changed. Moreover, juche has not been North Korea's ruling ideology for years. In his maiden speech on April 15, the North's new, twentysomething ruler, Kim Jong-un, mentioned the slogans "military first" and "a strong and prosperous nation" more than twenty times. He mentionedjuche exactly once.
Amazingly, Cha does not report how North Korea policy was made during the Bush years. He writes about what an honor it was to write policy memos for Bush, but never tells readers what he actually wrote or how his views might have differed from others in the administration. Cha's biggest revelation is that he was doing the dishes when he learned that North Korea was about to test a nuclear device in 2006.
Cha does not even attempt to describe the personal or institutional rivalries between (and within) the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community. For example, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is relegated to a minor role in Cha's narrative, even though Hill was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea and was instrumental in what few diplomatic advances the administration can claim and a thorn in the side of administration hard-liners like John Bolton. Cha's most revealing and colorful stories come from an excellent book about the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program--former CNN senior Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy's Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.
The Impossible State also lacks the circular firing squad quality that made many of the previous Bush administration memoirs at the very least highly entertaining. Cha manages to avoid the introspection of his former boss Condoleezza Rice in her book, No Higher Honor, or that of former North Korea negotiator Jack Prichard in Failed Diplomacy. He papers over the differences between administration neocons like Dick Cheney and pro-engagement pragmatists like Colin Powell, but never lets the reader into the process. For Cha, it seems sufficient to lay all the blame for a failed policy at North Korea's doorstep.
Cha's final chapter is entitled "The End Is Near," which, while accurately describing the reader's place in the book, does not persuasively make the case for the future of North Korea. In a New York Times article he wrote immediately after Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011, Cha insisted that "North Korea as we know it is over. Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months." Yet the consensus view in Seoul is that the North Korean state is anything but close to collapse. The debate there centers on whether Kim Jong-un can pursue reform and opening to the West or whether he will follow in the failed footsteps of his father.
Cha believes that, like the Middle East last year, North Korea is one spark away from a wildfire that will destroy the regime. This is either wishful thinking or a reflection of Cha's inadequate understanding of the institutions and policies that hold the regime together. At present, the public's capacity to challenge the government is nonexistent. North Korea is a society with an all-pervasive security apparatus that ensures the thorough indoctrination of all its citizens virtually from birth. A few sparks may begin to fly, but the regime's ability to stamp them out remains formidable. Inexplicably, Cha goes on to acknowledge that he will not be surprised if the regime is still standing a decade from now. The title of the chapter should be "The End Is Near... Or Maybe Not."
Cha's book also represents the latest at tempt to whitewash a presidency that has recently been deemed by a C-SPAN survey of presidential historians one of the ten worst in American history. The title of Cha's seventh chapter describes what the Bush administration was trying to achieve: namely, "The Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement" of North Korea's nuclear program. Unfortunately, the book doesn't tell us what North Korea would have received in exchange for denuclearizing, surely a key factor in any negotiation. Cha's analysis seems to rest almost entirely on the idea that the North Koreans are acting in bad faith. While North Korea did violate the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework by pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, that did not mean the whole deal had to be scrapped. The fact remains that the Clinton administration managed to get North Korea's spent nuclear fuel rods--from which plutonium can be processed and turned into A-bombs--put under international lock and key, while the Bush administration's arrogant, botched diplomacy allowed Pyongyang to get its hands on those fuel rods and then build and test a nuclear weapon. Cha argues that the failure of the Obama administration to make any headway is proof that it doesn't really matter who is in the White House. That may be true now that North Korea is a nuclear power and the regime feels insecure during the transition to a new "Dear Leader." It was not true, however, in 2001, when North Korea still lacked nukes and its officials were ready to move forward with the new Bush team.
Perhaps because Cha believes that the North Korean regime's demise is imminent, his book is bereft of policy advice. This is in sharp contrast to Going Critical, former diplomat Joel Wit's definitive account of the first North Korea nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. After meticulously recounting the Clinton administration's negotiations with North Korea, Wit concludes with a set of lessons that should be required reading for all future U.S. negotiators.
Lastly, The Impossible State would have benefited from more careful editing. One chapter includes a long and irrelevant digression on the life of one of South Korea's presidents. There are also numerous basic factual errors and inconsistencies. The U.S. spy ship captured by North Korea in 1968, the USS Pueblo (the only American naval ship still in foreign hands), for example, is located in Pyongyang, not in the eastern coastal city of Wonsan. Cha writes that Kim Jong-il ruled for thirteen years; several pages later, the number jumps to seventeen (the latter figure is correct). Paragraphs are frequently more than a page long; one monster weighs in at two and a half pages.
Cha begins his acknowledgments with a quote from President Bush, who told him, as he was leaving the NSC, "Thank you for your service to the nation. You left it in a better place than when you got here." The historical record would suggest otherwise. North Korea became a nuclear power on Cha's watch; how can that be regarded as anything but a profound failure?
Peter M. Beck is the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation in Seoul.