non-fiction, review

Review: The Impossible State by Victor Cha

As my first book in my 2021 non-fiction reading challenge, The Impossible State felt at times like an impossible challenge. It was randomly selected for me by the tbr game I am playing each month and it has been high up on my priority list of physically owned non fiction.

In The Impossible State, seasoned international-policy expert and lauded scholar Victor Cha pulls back the curtain on provocative, isolationist North Korea, providing our best look yet at its history and the rise of the Kim family dynasty and the obsessive personality cult that empowers them. Cha 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 death and the transition of power to his unpredictable heir.

Ultimately, this engagingly written, authoritative, and highly accessible history 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. 

With my non fiction reading, I am trying to work on expanding my knowledge of current events, politics and social studies. Its an area of my life that I feel like I am sorely lacking in awareness. This book was an excellent overview of a quick history of North Korea from inception to recent events. As I was going in with little to no knowledge it seemed like the right choice for me.

The writing was easily digestible. There were a few cases where a run on sentence took multiple attempts to parse, but overall I was zipping through paragraphs easily and able to maintain my motivation for hours. This was especially helped by the personal anecdotes that introduced some topics from Cha’s time in North Korea or with North Korean delegates. These anecdotes were often lighthearted moments that broke up the serious topics.

I also noticed a large focus on American administrations handling of the North Korean problem. It makes sense based on the author’s experiences and the unique viewpoints he is bringing to the book, but as I went in with absolutely no knowledge I was surprised by how much time was spent discussing how various presidents approached North Korea. The book especially comes back to compare each administration to Bush multiple times, which I thought was interesting the first time but as it kept coming back to an American lens over and over again I found it tiring.

This comes to my actual issue with The Impossible State; the repetitive nature of the book. In the acknowledgements Cha mentions the book was brought together in a short timescale and uses some material that was previously published as articles. A lot of the exact same facts/figures/stories were brought up repeatedly to make the same points in different chapters, often for different purposes. It ended up reading like a series of articles that were strung together with no awareness of the points discussed in the other articles. I think the points and topics being discussed were interesting to read about, however the repetition proved to be quite the hurdle to overcome. The information is packed in at high density, so re-reading facts that have already been mentioned two or three times recently in the same dense format fatigued me.

The first recorded trade between the two Koreas was in November 1988, in the form of a forty-kilogram (90-lb) box of clams that arrived in Pusan. The next was a shipment of 612 pieces of Korean artwork that arrived in Pusan on January 1989.

I absolutely cannot fault the book on how much I learnt. I was learning so much as I read that I was stopping my other half to update him on facts and statistics as I read. I highlighted tonnes as I read, and overall feel like I’m walking away from this book with a better general knowledge of the history of the North Korean regime. I now have a good basis of knowledge I can use to read more and pick up new books about North Korea.

In the end, I gave The Impossible State four stars overall.

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