Korea was bisected at the end of the Second World War, as a response to the differing political climates which each half of the peninsula espoused – North Korea preferred the communism of the Soviet Union, while South Korea was more in line with the policies and politics espoused by the west, the U.S. in particular. During the early fifties, hostilities between the two halves of the country reached breaking point, and the Korean War broke out, with the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea attempting to reunify the country by conquering South Korea, and the American army attempting to conquer North Korea. Neither side was successful, leading to the official founding of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which, for clarity, will henceforth be referred to as North Korea throughout this essay.
North Korea only really went into decline in the seventies – beforehand, while not exactly thriving, the economy of the country received substantial help from the communist Soviet Union and China, with such an emphasis on agriculture and war that they were said to be on the same footing as South Korea. However, in the early seventies, North Korea decided to spend less on agriculture and more on the military, in a bid to be less dependent on the larger communist states of China and the Soviet Union, and as a result, their economy stopped expanding, and went into decline. Additionally, the rest of the world was beginning to industrialise and utilise technology in a way which it never had before; North Korea, due to its emphasis on a centrally planned economy, could not emulate.
This paper will focus on the reasons for failed states, and more specifically why North Korea is a failed state. As a result, politics, both internal and external, will be examined, along with other factors which may have led to the eventual failure of the state to help its people thrive. In particular, North Korea’s approach to world politics will be focused on, as will the outside influences on both parts of the Korean peninsula. Since this is a delicate subject, appropriate care will be taken to avoid any unnecessarily argumentative viewpoints, but since the paper will discuss the failures of North Korea and its leadership, some controversy is unavoidable.
While North Korea is consistently referred to – at least in the West – as a failed state, there is some controversy over what is meant by ‘failed’ in this context.
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. (Pearson, 2012)
Pearson, throughout his article, uses a comparison between North Korea and Somalia as the means to discuss the meaning of ‘failed’ in the differing contexts which we use it in. His arguments even make sense, as far as they go – Somalia actually has no government, regardless of anything else, so comparing it with the total control exerted across the North Korean state from Pyongyang (Pearson, 2012) seems disingenuous at best.
Obviously, from this point of view, North Korea is very much not a failed state – yes, there is corruption and a perhaps more than healthy reliance on the countries around it to provide the support it needs to truly feed and care for all its people (even to the extent that North Korea pays attention to its people), but there is an existing government, there is a healthcare system (Pearson, 2012), and there is enough infrastructure in place to organise and almost carry out a missile strike with enough veracity to make Western countries extremely nervous (Starr, 2016). So to try and categorise it as failed using the same metric as we use for countries such as Somalia is ultimately an experiment that will fail. From a completely dry standpoint which posits political stability as the metric of state failure, North Korea will not be in the running, as then most other countries would also be in the running for being failed states. However, it is important to remember most of these countries manage to both control and manage their populace without needing to resort to gulags and internment camps, which is something North Korea apparently cannot do without. From that point of view, while Pearson does make some valid points, North Korea should be (and will be throughout this paper) viewed as a failed state.
The political situation in North Korea, while appearing to be calm for the moment, is one which is “focused exclusively on the tactical challenges of short-term regime survival” to use the words of Kaplan and Denmark (2011), which is something that sets it apart from the rest of Asia, all of which is currently experiencing a boom in terms of both economy and economic output (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011).
The salient feature of the North Korean system of “Suryong” is that, while it traces its roots to the socialist dictatorship of Leninism, it is primarily based on North Korea’s own juche ideology, and the “Suryong” has replaced the “party” as the nucleus of political leadership. (Sakai, 2016, 1)
In North Korea, a suryong is a leader, in this case the leader of the government, Kim Jong-Un (after Kim Jong-Il). Leninism is something which seeks to position the vanguard party as the part of the party which has agency over decisions, which is something that its detractors mention has the potential to allow it to deteriorate into a dictatorship (Sakai, 2016, 2). At this point, it is most likely advisable to remember that North Korea describing itself as a self-reliant socialist state does not make it so, as one underpinning of Leninism was that, while people were held to be bound by the decisions that they themselves had made, they did at least manage to retain the right to make these decisions in the first place (Burchill, 2013). This focus on the short-term political status, while perhaps necessary as a means of consolidating the power of the party, is something which characterises it as a failed state, because it is ultimately useless as a political and economic strategy. A short-term solution to the problems faced by North Korea in terms of its need for food and trade (Lee, Kim & Lee, 2009, 281) is one which has failed its people, as only a long-term strategy can fix the problems faced by the country (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011). This perhaps makes the comparison between the party and organised crime families that much more apt (Scobell, 2006, iv-v), since, while corruption can be argued to exist in every government, it does not exist to the level where that corruption is actively making it impossible for the populace to make its own decisions. Corruption and utilising one particular element as a focal point for the government is perhaps not on its own the sign of a state which is not in complete control, but in correlation with everything else that can be seen as part and parcel of the experience in North Korea, the reliance on these two concepts should certainly set off warning bells in anyone who studies politics.
The end of the twentieth century saw the North Korean economy finally begin to expand after more than a decade in decline (Park, 2003, 4), but it remains to be seen whether their economy can truly recover. As has been discussed in the introduction, at the end of the sixties the North Korean government chose to distance itself economically from the Soviet Union inspired reliance on a strictly agricultural economic policy (though the Soviet Union did still provide some trade and economic help up until its dissolution). However, while both the Soviet Union and China may have – and probably did have – concerns for the people of North Korea who depended on their economy for their own survival, their eagerness to embrace trade and support with North Korea should be tempered with the realisation of just who has been in South Korea since the end of the Second World War.
Sometimes China’s North Korea policies are motivated by the traditional alliance relationship and at other times by the strategic cooperative relationship, with inevitable inconsistency and ambiguity. China’s behaviors with respect to the North Korean nuclear crises typically reveal this duplexity. (Lee, 2014)
While the Soviet Union and its Communist parties collapsed in the early nineties, China is still a Communist state, with all that that implies. While Lee (2014) does point out that China is becoming more global in its outlook, thereby changing the way it relates to both North and South Korea (being less tolerant of some of North Korea’s more temperamental actions, as is shown in the quote above) and being more open to relations with South Korea, that does not change the fact that North Korea is being used as a buffer zone.
China, for all that it is attempting to become a major global player, still does not trust or like the U.S., and so will most likely never be entirely happy with the thought of close relations with the Southern half of the Korean Peninsula, either because the two Koreas have been reunited, or (as is the most likely scenario at this juncture), China has been forced out of necessity into closer trading relations with the South. Oddly, while this state of affairs is something which further labels North Korea as a failed state, this is not entirely its fault. Having trading and diplomatic relations with outside countries is something which all states do, of course, though the legitimacy of having your largest trading partner be driven almost entirely by ulterior motives is perhaps not a state of affairs which will ensure future prosperity. China is a rapidly expanding economy, however, and it is big enough that the U.S. itself is beginning to change attitudes towards the necessity of working with it on an equal footing (Lee, 2014). Since this is the case, North Korea is hardly in a position to really change anything about the economic agreements which subsist between the two countries.
Ideally, for North Korea to really move into a future which sees it expanding economically and standing on its own, it would need to forge alliances with countries which do not see it mostly in terms of its strategic importance in keeping a buffer between them and another state that they do not fully trust. The reliance on China as a trading partner is another way in which North Korea has failed its people; there is not even any need to drop trading relations with that country, but there is a need to expand beyond that single trade agreement and make alliances with other partners. This would expand the horizon of the country, and also potentially allow for a greater variety of both trading goods and information to be included. Having a variety of trade agreements would strengthen North Korea’s position in world politics, and allow the people of that country more freedom of choice in goods and services.
North Korea’s future is uncertain, given the recent regime changes, and the relative inexperience of its new leader. If, rather than focus purely on the short-term solutions which have characterised its political atmosphere until now (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011), North Korea took a long term-approach to economic growth which “focused on foreign trade and investment in a sustained manner” (Lee, Kim & Lee, 2009, 279), then it could potentially reverse the food shortages which have plagued it since the late twentieth century, and begin to expand its own economy once more.
Expectations that extreme poverty would translate into regime instability have underestimated the government’s resourcefulness and endurance. Throughout the 1990s, the North Korean regime was under a “prolonged death watch” due to the loss of its principal patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991 (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011)
It is interesting to note that North Korea has managed to survive, despite being outmatched in almost every single way a country can be – where overwhelming poverty on the part of the common people while the aristocrats (or the reigning family, in North Korea) live in comfort, would normally be seen as a reason to revolt, but even with a new and inexperienced leader currently taking charge (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011), no uprisings of any kind have taken place. If North Korea continues its efforts to kick-start the economy (presuming they do it correctly), then the regime could continue for a while longer (Lee, Kim & Lee, 2009, 279-280). However, this does not mean that North Korea is not a failed state. The focus on the maintenance of the regime itself rather than the maintenance of the state as something which has to support a population of more than twenty million people (Kaplan & Denmark, 2011) proves that it is a failed state, because it has the duties of the state backwards: the state exists to serve the people, not the other way round.
Until the end of the Second World War, Korea was under the control of the Japanese, but with their surrender, the peninsula was divided between America (South Korea) and the Soviet Union (North Korea), with the division being made official in 1948, with the creation of two separate governments. An invasion of the south of the peninsula by North Korea in 1950 led to the Korean War, which saw North Korea attempting to unify both sides of the peninsula under its government, and the U.S. attempting to do the same on behalf of South Korea. The war, which lasted for three years, was brought to an end in 1953 by the Korean Armistice Agreement, but thus far, no actual peace treaty has been signed.
This paper examined the reasons for the failure of North Korea as a state, looking at politics, trading, and international relations. The section on international relations focused on both North Korea’s influence on the world around it, and the outside world’s influence on North Korea; this was an attempt to see how these opposing influences could feed off each other. It is unfortunate that this paper will natural be controversial in its outlook, but the beginning stance of North Korea being a failed state will necessarily lead to some opinions which are difficult in nature.
Officially, North Korea refers to itself as a self-sustaining socialist state, but the reality is that during the fifties and sixties, the state was heavily subsidised and fortified by the Soviet Union and China, its nearest relations to the North. Without their help (North Korea attempted to distance itself from its neighbours in the late sixties and early seventies) the economy began to decline alarmingly, leading to the situation we have today, with North Korea unable to meet the technological standards of the rest of the world.
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