Features | Security | East Asia

Calling a Rogue a Rogue

North Korea and Pakistan have many differences. But they also share some key similarities—not least a history of taking the US for a ride.

By Apoorva Shah for

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.

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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.

But perhaps most importantly, North Korea and Pakistan share a trait that they have learned by subverting years of US diplomatic efforts—engagement in a cycle of misbehaviour, ‘engagement,’ token concession-making, and foreign aid cadging that spans years and multiple administrations.

For US diplomats working on North Korea, this process is painfully familiar—on discovering that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, there’s some panic among policymakers who work to quickly bring the regime back into the Six-Party Talks. After half-heartedly participating in these talks, North Korea decides it will provide a token concession, for example by destroying a single nuclear cooling tower that is already disused, as it did in June 2008. The United States and other Western powers declare a minor success and then provide some sort of aid to the North Korean regime as a reward for ‘good behavior.’ A few years later, North Korea misbehaves again, and the process starts over.

What we don’t seem to have acknowledged, though, is that the Pakistani regime is using this same subversive cycle for its own benefit and survival.

In Pakistan, the narrative is slightly different: the country’s military and intelligence services allegedly covertly help Islamic terrorists receive funding, train, and then plot attacks in countries such as India or the United States. They then innocently beseech the United States for assistance, lamenting that terrorism harms them as much as it does America. The United States, recognizing the diplomatic imperative, provides a massive foreign aid package (see Kerry-Lugar). Pakistan subsequently makes a few symbolic arrests of terrorist leaders when a major US official visits (only to release them once the cameras leave). Months and years later, there are few concrete results, while anti-Americanism, terrorism, and poverty increase. Pakistan once again begs the United States for aid, and the cycle continues.

In the cases of both North Korea and Pakistan, it’s clear it’s time for the United States to break out of this vicious cycle. We’ve been duped by these regimes for years to the detriment of our security and that of our allies. But we can’t make changes in policy until we acknowledge how rogue regimes take advantage of our diplomatic strategy. 

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Critics within and without the current administration have recognized this problem in North Korea, yet change has been slow. Perhaps the immediacy of the Pakistan problem, and the implications of bin Laden having been discovered so close to Islamabad, can bring some much-needed light to this issue as we accept that diplomatic engagement without rigorous demands is a waste of time.

Until the United States changes course, North Korea and Pakistan—kindred spirits in diplomatic deception—will be happy to continue business as usual.


Apoorva Shah is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @ashah85.