China and Neighbourhood

Why North Korea is not, and should not be regarded as, a ‘Failed State’

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Thousands of miles away from the relative tranquility of the UN Security Council in New York lies a volatile and turbulent nation. A cause of constant international concern, it is a nation that bears all the hallmarks of a “failed state” with its people living under constant fear and fleeing in their thousands. A former colony divided by civil war, its continued procurement of arms and poor human rights record is not only of grave concern to the international community, it threatens to destabilise an entire region.

The state in question is Somalia –– a state that, following the collapse of an authoritarian regime in 1991 and many subsequent humanitarian crises, is yet to produce a central or functioning government.

The DPRK (North Korea), is also regularly referred to as being a “failed state” but it has never collapsed and the government does not even remotely resemble that of a truly collapsed state such as Somalia –– indeed, the absolute power that the government projects in Pyongyang is almost the antithesis of the anarchy that exists in Mogadishu. Despite humanitarian crises, severely limited diplomatic relations with its neighbours and the oppressiveness of the government, the DPRK has nevertheless remained intact.

Yet, regardless of the regime’s seemingly inexplicable ability to avoid disintegration, we continue to treat it as such, based largely on what can objectively only be described as a series of assumptions, founded on little knowledge of the history, politics and culture of the Korean peninsula. This is severely interfering with the West’s ability to engage with North Korea and further stalling an already prolonged conflict.

Whilst the opening description of Somalia could so easily be applied to what many claim to be a “failed state”, it and shares few similarities with the DPRK. Somalia, according to the “Failed States Index”[2] (compiled by US-based research organisation Fund for Peace),[3] is the “world’s most failed state”[4] due to its high score in all twelve of the table’s social, economic and political indicators. The DPRK also ranks fairly highly, sharing nineteenth place with Nigeria, amongst the FSI’s top “most failed states” in the world.

Scoring methods that rely on political indicators are evidently high, most notably Indicator 7 that awards the DPRK 9.9/10 for “resistance of ruling elites to transparency, accountability and political representation”.[5] This score is second only to Somalia itself, which gains an impressive 10/10 in the same group, presumably because its not even clear who the so-called ‘ruling elites’ of Somalia actually are.


Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 2 No. 4


 

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