Latest Reading: “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future”

I just completed reading Viktor Cha’s book on North Korea. He is an expert on the country and used to work on the National Security Council and is now a professor at Georgetown University. I hear much about the country in the news and wanted to learn a bit more about it. It was an excellent read and below are the salient points I am taking away from the book.

My first knowledge of Korea came from watching re-runs of the 1970s television sitcom, M*A*S*H, which was set in the Korean War. The war thankfully ended before my father was drafted into the US Army (1956), but not after over 33,00 Americans were killed.

North Korea was formed in the aftermath of World War II. The Japanese had occupied the country for a long time and after their defeat, the USSR controlled the northern part of the country and the US the southern part. The Soviets installed Kim Il-Sung as a puppet leader. Il-Sung had fought the Japanese on the side of the Russians in a foreign delegation in China. He was really young and not a politician and someone the Russians thought they could control. He soon led North Korea into a war with the south and over 50 years later, his family dynasty is still leading the country. North Korea at the end of World War II was much better off than the south. They had the Japanese infrastructure and throughout the Cold War, like Yugoslavia, played China and the USSR off each other, gaining the maximum support from both. This all fell apart with the break up of the Soviet Union.

Today South Korea is 35 times richer than North Korea. North Korea is basically a province of China, with the Chinese supporting them because of mining interests and their port. It is hard to understand how the Kim family can keep such an iron grip on the population. Part of it must be Korean culture which is submissive to authority. The Kim’s also control the population tightly through blocking information from the outside, put dissent down violently, and keep most people in utter poverty. I watched a documentary years ago about a North Korean family secretly living in China in the woods, having to give up their 5 year old son to live with relatives because they couldn’t feed him. Absolutely heart-wrenching! I was disgusted and saddened to read about the atrocities. I can’t believe there are countries like this in 2012!

Cha predicts the regime will go down soon, and I hope so. Like him, I see eventually the countries becoming unified. It makes sense that they all live on a peninsula and it is a homogeneous ethnic population. It will be difficult however because of the vast difference in wealth, knowledge and culture of the two countries, being kept apart for so long. It was also interesting to read about the nuclear weapons North Korea owns and the long history of negotiations. The US is planning for the regime’s downfall. It will be a serious change for China, which shares a border and nearby Japan, as well.

I will be following the news from the country more closely. I hope to see the day that the North Korean people are freed from tyranny. I highly recommend the book to people who want to learn more about this secretive nation.

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