For years, the threat of instability in North Korea and Pakistan has haunted US foreign policy, challenging the United States to develop an effective plan for confronting and reforming these unstable regimes.
Yet success has been elusive.
To date, the United States has approached its policy to these two high-risk countries separately. And, ostensibly, they do appear to be two very separate problems—North Korea has nothing to do with fomenting radical Islamic terrorism, and there’s no aging and unpredictable dictator like Kim Jong-il to deal with in Pakistan.
Yet what if we were to rethink our approach to these two countries with a new mindset—one in which Pakistan and North Korea are actually more alike than they are different?
Of course, to appreciate how similar these two countries are, it’s important first to concede their differences. For a start, even a casual observer would note the contrast between desolate North Korea and a Pakistan that resembles many other poor yet developing countries, with their signs of modernity such as affluent shops and restaurants and a cadre of English-educated, Western-oriented elites. From the level of regime control in each state to the amount of public openness and civic dialogue, North Korea and Pakistan are worlds apart. Unlike North Korea, Pakistan has no totalitarian or revisionist ambitions. And even though they are tense—and could be become more so in light of the killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan—diplomatic relations do at least exist between Washington and Islamabad.
But beneath the obvious differences between the two, there are some uncanny similarities.
First, both countries have rogue nuclear programmes developed outside agreed international frameworks, and both have in the past sold weapons technology to other sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria. And, despite the United States’ best efforts to control their nuclear ambitions, both countries continue to develop their technology, building new reactors and testing weapons.
Second, both societies define themselves in negative terms. Pakistan is Pakistan because it is not India; North Korea is North Korea because it isn’t South Korea. Their rivals are richer and, in many ways, have moved on past the internecine conflict that separated the nations in the first place—they are now concerned with more pressing issues like economic growth. Yet both South Korea and India serve as foils for North Korea and Pakistan’s aggressive foreign policy, militarization, and domestic propaganda campaigns, and they legitimately fear that their neighbour could rashly resort to force at any moment.
Third, both North Korea and Pakistan are intensely militarized nations. In fact, they are ‘military first’ societies (a term that Pyongyang explicitly embraces) where, despite all of the uncertainties and instabilities that the countries face, the armed forces remain stern, nationalistic, and stable.