This is part II of a three-part series on the book “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security” by Jonathan Pollack.
At its core, this book is about the decision-making process within the elite circles of Pyongyang aimed at maximizing the state’s survival in a hostile world. The greatest strength of this book is that the sources used consist primarily of interviews and Cold War archives. Moreover, Pollack makes use of primary sources within North Korea like its official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, to provide a “first-person” narrative of North Korea’s nuclear pursuit from its origin to 2010.
“My analysis draws extensively on the DPRK’s official media. Without access to decision-making in Pyongyang, careful scrutiny of these materials is crucial to understanding the language, logic and rhythms of North Korean policy.” (Pollack, p. 8)
Another strength of this book was its sole focus on the North Korean nuclear issue. While some could consider this a weakness, it is actually its strength because the book does not claim to be a comprehensive overview on North Korea – rather, this book focuses on just one facet of North Korea and successfully does so in great detail and analysis. There are no unneeded tangents that distract the reader from the subject at hand. This is also the reason why I recommended in the previous section of this review that North Korean neophytes steer clear of this book until they gain some background knowledge on the other major issues regarding North Korea. (Topics like defectors, gulags, human rights, cult of personality, unification, daily life, climate, geography, etc. are all almost entirely absent from the book.)
I also liked that the book was written chronologically with no major time jumps or lapses. The book was keenly organized and very straightforward (albeit dry at points). The chain of thoughts and actions that led to particular decisions were also coherent and simple to understand.
The book itself was printed in easy-to-read size and font and despite the hundreds of sources used to write the book, there were no cluttering footnotes or in-text citations (the notes were all neatly situated at the end of the book).
The biggest drawback of this book is that it is not up-to-date. Although printed less than two years ago, this book is already seriously outdated. (The reasons are listed in the following section of this review.)
Another weakness of this book is that, in the words of Pollack, “Those analyzing the North must do so from a distance. It remains largely sealed from the outside world, with observers at best having episodic and highly constrained access.” As a result, after providing a transcript of an interview or archive document, much of the analysis Pollack presents is the best any of us could do— an educated guess. Most of the analysis Pollack provides is prefaced with words like: “purportedly”, “allegedly”, “apparently”, “ostensibly”, “supposedly”, “seemingly”, “outwardly”, etc.
Also, I would have liked to see more pictures and graphs. Although this may seem elementary, there were one or two pictures/graphs in the book and I would have liked to see many more. As more of a visual learner, I find pictures/graphs to be tremendously helpful in being able to better understand the content.
Finally, Pollack’s book does not introduce any radical or new ideas on North Korea’s future prospects. He sums up his thoughts (that most experts already share) with the last two sentences of his book:
“When, whether and how major change occurs in North Korea remains to be seen. Until such time, the United States, its regional allies and partners, and the international community as a whole must seek to ensure that this embattled system does not do larger damage to peace and security in Northeast Asia and beyond.” (Pollack, p. 209)
Despite the lack of definitive conclusions/new ideas on how to rein in North Korea, a need for a new edition, and most of the analysis being based on conjectures and extrapolations, I highly recommended that this book be read by officials directly involved with North Korea along with scholars and students who are learning about North Korean affairs or Northeast Asian security studies. While this book may be informative to the layperson, there are more suitable articles and books that can get the basic message across without such painstaking detail.