China and Neighbourhood

Why North Korea is not, and Should not Be Regarded as, a ‘Failed State’

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We are still yet to see the col-lapse or demise of the North Korean government but we still talk of Pyong-yang’s grapple over the nation as be-ing “on the brink”.



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”(compiled by US-based research organisation Fund for Peace), is the “world’s most failed state” 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”. 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.

But this same table, rearranged in descending order by its own social indicators, produces dramatically different results. By reorganising the list by “human flight” (the term used to describe, among other things, the “growth of exile communities”), North Korea drops by ninety-nine places, far below the likes of China and India and only ten places ahead of its southern cousin, the Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea), to become the lowest-ranked, and therefore least “failed” of the initial twenty “top failed states”. It should go without saying why “human flight” is a fundamentally flawed method of measuring to what degree North Korea has “failed”.

India and China, however, are rarely referred to as being failed states, despite scoring so highly on some of the FSI’s most prominent indicators. Contrastingly, such states are instead regularly described as “rising”, “developing” or “counter-balancing”. Indeed, a potential issue with relying on such mechanistic methods to try and quantify what constitutes a “failed state” such as those employed by the FSI is that one is only able to measure the degree of failure in several fairly broad fields that assume a very vague level of universality between all nations.

These league tables of failure, when published out of context with little case-by-case explanation of the decision making process, can too easily give rise to counter-productive and inaccurate rhetoric or sensationalism. Worse still, by comparing states that are perceived to be failed with those states deemed to be successful, interaction with such a state can easily manifest itself in the form of a misguided nation building approach that suggests such a state is perhaps “lost”, beyond salvation or in desperate need of regime change.

Therefore, by coupling two such diverse states as Somalia and the DPRK under the same “failed state” umbrella, a process of vilification has begun and little headway has been made in understanding the political, economic and social situation of either regime. Clearly, a far more pragmatic method of measuring the failure of a state is required, if the results of such a study are to be helpful in any way.

Firstly, the term “failed state” has been argued to be more explicitly linked to the absolute collapse or disintegration of central government and its functions that would require the “paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos.” –– terms which seem somewhat inappropriate for the totalitarian control that Pyongyang exercises over its territory.


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2  No. 4

James Pearson read Chinese and Korean at the School of Oriental & African Studies and is now reading for a Master’s in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.


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