How Failed is North Korea?

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How Failed is North Korea?

North Korea is often branded a failed state. But what exactly do people mean, and what is it based on?

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.