How Failed is North Korea?
Image Credit: Stefan Krasowski

How Failed is North Korea?


In recent years, North Korea has collected an impressive array of very unflattering superlatives. Whether it be the most “failed”, “corrupt” or “undemocratic” state in the world, it manages to frequently top (or bottom) such rankings and indexes.

It’s a pattern that emerges frequently, and often places North Korea just a few places below Somalia which, in the case of last year’s Failed States Index (FSI) seemed to confusingly suggest that the two states were almost as “failed” as each other. (A strange comparison to make when the absolute power Pyongyang manages to project across North Korea is the total antithesis of the complete anarchy that exists in Mogadishu).

The FSI uses 12 political, social and economic “indicators” to reach its conclusions. Politically, North Korea achieves an impressive 9.9/10 for “de-legitimization of the state” thanks to its “resistance of ruling elites to transparency, accountability and political representation.” Somalia is again a close second, which gains a rival 9.8/10 in the same group, presumably because it isn’t even clear who, or indeed where, the so-called “ruling elites” of Somalia actually are.

It’s therefore puzzling that we award the two states the same title. Somalia is widely recognized to have collapsed, yet while we’ve been talking about a North Korean collapse for over a decade, the regime has remained stable and resilient in the face of famine and economic decline.

Rearranging the FSI in descending order according to social indicators produces dramatically different results. By reorganizing the list by “human flight” (the term used to describe, among other things, the “growth of exile communities”), North Korea drops more than 90 places, landing only two places ahead of South Korea. It should go without saying why “human flight” is a fundamentally flawed method of measuring to what degree North Korea has “failed.”

Indeed, how the FSI managed to obtain any clear and reliable information from North Korea is a mystery. In the weeks following the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of Kim Jong-un, analysts were quick to draw enormous conclusions derived largely from the memoirs of Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto – a surreal twist in an already bizarre tale.

In 2010, Amnesty International produced a damming report on the state of North Korea’s healthcare system based entirely on the accounts of defectors, some of whom had left almost a decade before the report was complied. In the same year, Director General of the World Health Organisation Margaret Chan (who had actually taken the trouble to go to North Korea) said the country’s healthcare system was “something which most other developing countries would envy.

It should be basic procedure in any analysis to recognise the limits of knowledge available and critically asses the sources of information. But, when it comes to North Korea, we seem to excuse ourselves from the standards that we otherwise hold ourselves accountable to.

The end of 2011 saw the publication of two more indexes that evidently fell into the same trap; Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and the Nuclear Threats Initiative (NTI) Nuclear Materials Security Index.

Like the FSI, both were from “respected” Western NGOs. Both included North Korea in their survey. For Transparency International this was for the first time it had produced its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and, for NTI, the index itself was new. Again, on examination of their published indexes, and accompanying methodology (and in the case of TI supplemented by email enquiry) it was clear that neither had any meaningful intelligence on North Korea.

Despite this, both put North Korea at the bottom of their index. While North Korea was again ranked equal bottom with its old friend Somalia in the Corruption Perception Index, the data was nevertheless often faithfully relayed with the usual images of a stern-looking Kim Jong-il clapping or flanked by his soldiers.

The point isn’t whether their conclusions about corruption and the safety of nuclear material in North Korea are correct or not; they are probably both way off the mark. The issue is that they have no firm evidence on which to make an assessment.

Yet, despite this, we still readily accept their conclusions and use them to prove that North Korea is corrupt, failed, undemocratic, and a nuclear threat. This is the sort of rhetoric that, often unquestioned, dominates both the public and political debate on North Korea. Although it’s broadening, it’s a debate that is also becoming more and more polarized between those that favor engagement and those taking a harder line.

This in turn isn’t helped when incidents such as the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan are grouped together, taken out of context, then inexplicably linked to succession. When reported, it’s rarely mentioned that both events took place just kilometers from disputed territorial waters and that, technically, both states are still at war with each other. Since we have already gathered proof and created indexes that label North Korea in superlatively unfavorable terms, why should we pay attention to the history, context and culture of the Korean peninsula that might encourage us to play to a more pragmatic and measured game of diplomacy?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Failed States Index produces an entertaining gimmick alongside its report called “Postcards from Hell, 2011” – a set of harrowing images from its top fifty or so most-failed states. But until we are able to discuss North Korea without resorting to these labels that are, at worse inaccurate, and at best dated, we will still continue to view North Korea through a lens that significantly differs from reality.

While these indexes can offer regional perspective on areas of international concern, they paint such a negative image of the states in question that they actually discourage the very foreign investment and international development that could help address the serious unbalance the reports allege to be combating.

It’s oddly ironic that many who call for reform in North Korea are very often the first to use these reports to legitimize their claims. By doing so, they actively deter the fair economic treatment and investment that truly has the potential to instigate such change.

Sadly, nobody wants to invest in “hell.”


James Pearson is a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge where he is reading for a Master's of Philosophy in East Asian Studies. He is involved in North Korea-related NGO work and makes frequent trips to Korea and China. Thanks go to Jim Hoare for valuable insight and Tim Beal for contributing crucial research and analysis, more of which can be found here in Vol. 12 No. 1 of his Pyongyang Report.

August 3, 2012 at 03:39

What the hell does this comment mean

James Pearson
April 24, 2012 at 15:31

Thanks for your feedback.

In short, yes, some foreign investment WILL help change the situation in North Korea. This doesn’t mean it can happen without massive domestic changes as well as a change in external attitudes though. At no point in the article do I deny that North Korea is a dictatorship and at no point do I deny that it imprisons and tortures its own people.

However what I do argue is that we don’t help ourselves by painting a fairly one-dimensional picture of the state based on, at best, fairly incomplete information. You seem to miss this point. I’m not arguing that it’s therefore good and we should open a Taco Bell in Pyongyang.

Any well-informed reporter, diplomat or anyone else might tell you that Pyongyang is a show town, but they would also recognise that it’s not as black and white as a giant episode of the Truman Show, designed for foreign consumption. This is exactly the kind of simplistic view that hampers with our abilities to engage with the state.

And why would you only bring up Pyongyang and not all the other towns? Just like most developing states, economic development is centred around the major port cities and heavily-populated towns. The countryside trails far, far behind. Again, you’re not recognising that the situation is far more dynamic than it appears on the outside. By only focusing on Pyongyang, you’re buying into the regime’s own propaganda that it’s the most important place in the country.

I don’t misrepresent what Margaret Chan said in her report because she did say that the DPRK health care system was “something which most other developing countries would envy” — that’s not to deny that there are any malnutrition issues (which of course there are) — but what developing countries don’t suffer from malnutrition? She speaks of the DPRK from a developing country perspective — that’s precisely why the WHO place it in the same group of nations as Bangladesh and developing SE Asian nations etc.

The simple fact is that we can change more on the ground in North Korea by recognising the fact that it’s trying desperately to open up to foreign investment. I also wouldn’t want to put money directly into the hands of the government so it could be spent on weapons. But when was the last time you thought about something being “Made in China” indirectly funding unforgivable human rights abuses there? One of the main reasons China has begun to move forward politically is that it’s been dragged into a globally connected market that puts more checks and balances on its domestic politics.

If you can’t move beyond an argument that stands on the outside and screams and shouts at North Korea and simplifies what happens there into “Good vs. Evil” terms, you will achieve absolutely nothing. North Korea will shut its doors and the kind of “horrors” you refer to will continue. In the worse possible case, nothing will happen and we’ll head towards another famine and/or a severe political crisis. It’s precisely because I have spoken to people who have fled North Korea that I argue allowing the regime to change is going to do more for the country then placing sanctions on it and grouping it into an “Axis of Evil”. What’s the fastest and most stable way to allow North Korea to change? Engage in foreign investment.

China has been able to shift itself from something that resembles contemporary North Korea to a country that, whilst still plagued by political atrocities, has at least improved the quality of life for its citizens who now (for the most part) no longer starve to death or are beaten up and imprisoned for saying something that could be perceived as being “anti-revolutionary”. This has happened because we were willing to normalise diplomatic relations with Beijing, move beyond the idea that they’re all crazy and brainwashed and, lastly, invest in it. I know anything that appears to portray North Korea in even a remotely good light is not very popular — but we’ve got to start looking at this from a much more multi-dimensional perspective if we actually want to make the changes we’re demanding.

You’re appalled that this article could reach publication. I’m frankly appalled that more articles like it don’t reach publication. Instead, we repeat the same old themes and offer sensationalist and ill-informed analysis that is rarely nuanced and we achieve absolutely nothing.

April 15, 2012 at 01:53

I cannot believe this article. You’re asking people to believe that North Korea, an hereditary dictatorial state which not only starves it’s own people but imprisons and tortures whole generations of families of those who dare to ‘step out of line’ is a misunderstood party, and a bit of foreign investment will help. Why on earth would any self-respecting company want to prop up such a regime? You may well have been to North Korea to ‘see for yourself’, but just how much were you ‘allowed to see’? You misrepresent what Margaret Chan said; ‘she said malnutrition was a problem in North Korea’ – it’s not obvious in Pyongyang because, as any reporter, diplomat or anyone else will tell you, Pyongyang is nothing more than a ‘show-town’ to hide the untold horrors that occur on a daily basis in the countryside. I would encourage you to speak to some of those who fled North Korea, and listen to some of their tales of horror; I think that might give you a slightly more clear insight into just how one can define a ‘corrupt, failed, undemocratic’ state. I’m really quite appalled by this article, and amazed it could reach publication.

February 3, 2012 at 20:11

Great analysis. “We will still continue to view North Korea through a lens that significantly differs from reality.” This is a theme echoed by B.R. Meyers’ analysis when he talks about Western misperceptions and mischaracterizations of the DPRK as a Stalinist/Confucianist/communist/juche-driven Cold War relic. These descriptions are always off the mark, yet they endure because so few people actually take the time to delve into what the North Koreans are actually saying (both to the world and their domestic audience) and how their rhetoric is backed up by a very clear strategy predicated on regime survival and Korean nationalism.

Thank you James for adding some much needed alternative analysis to the broader DPRK discussion.

February 2, 2012 at 00:25

James is right. We often consume information about the DPRK without truly checking the source–even if those sources are the hallowed “indexes.” Just because you call yourself an index does not automatically mean that your research is rigorous and thorough. I’m sure these indexes are full of smart folks, and I’m sure they serve a purpose and can be useful in specific ways. But the results these indexes output with reference to the DPRK shows their weak underbelly. It also shows that we cannot expect that the entire socio-political world can be shoved into a clean, convenient, neat “index” that is easily and quickly referenced.

ann rogers
February 1, 2012 at 22:26

Finally, some nuanced analysis that takes a good hard look at the way “we” use information to frame our discourse about “them”. Much more insightful and usable than what we usually see about NK.

Hassan Nur
February 1, 2012 at 11:11

What does that say about Washington, the Whitehouse, Congress, the news medias, Pentagon, CIA, US funded NGOs worldwide, London, Whitehall, MI6, British news medias, human rights and civil society bodies .. etc ..?

All are tools against potential competitors for economic and military influence globally.

Their most nefarious tool is the news medias which they use to smear their competitors and brainwashed the rest of the world – their own citizens included. Rather reminiscent of the Anti-Christ, is it not? Above all else, the Anti-Christ is a great manipulator of peoples’ opinions and sentiments.

Sly Reference
February 1, 2012 at 02:00

It’s sometimes amazing in this age of the Internet that reporting on North Korea in the West repeats the same themes almost without variation. This is especially true in America. There seems to be an unconscious urge to demonize North Korea, almost like a holdover from the Cold War like the DMZ that divides the peninsula. So it’s refreshing to find someone questioning how a state ready to collapse remains in that state for almost 20 years. Of course, anyone who is familiar with Andrei Lankov already has that question in their mind, but his articles aren’t often found in Western publications.

This is not to support North Korea; many of the stories about the country may well be true, but hating the system doesn’t mean that it’s ready to collapse. Western analysts like to claim that China is on the verge of collapse, often in the face of tremendous annual growth. If China can’t escape this criticism, how can North Korea hope to be considered stable? And yet some experts say that the country has seen modest (~1%) growth from most of the past decade. Nothing spectacular, but nothing that would indicate an impending collapse. Yet the Western media still tries to sell that old myth, as if nothing could ever change there.

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