North Korea is a wicked problem. A wicked problem has been variously defined by the social sciences as one that defies resolution due to adequate information never being available or dynamic characteristics that are difficult to isolate or pin down.
An example of this is the varying predictions about when a North Korean collapse will occur. Even though everyone in the region needs to be prepared for regime collapse should it ever occur, the problem facing Northeast Asia really isn’t whether or not the DPRK will implode; it is that North Korea is a failed state. It is that failed state with which others in the region and the U.S. must prepare to deal.
In preparing for failed states, it is imperative to know precisely what we are dealing with. Seminal work in this regard can be found in Paul D. Miller’s 2013 book Armed State Building: Confronting State Failure 1898-2012. The root cause of the disasters in dealing with failed states is a lack of understanding of why and how nation-states fail – witness first Iraq and now Syria. This requires a highly nuanced grasp of the factors behind failed or failing states. However, in order to comprehend how states fail, it is first necessary to recognize what states are supposed to do.
Miller’s analysis postulates that there are five functions that states are to perform. They are: (a) a state must have a coercive force to defend itself and administer its rule; (b) it must exemplify a theory of justice that is accepted by its citizenry; (c) a state must be the supplier of a host of public goods and services such as infrastructure, education and other necessary social services, to cite only a few; (d) it must offer a sound fiscal foundation for its people, be involved in the economy only to the degree necessary to accomplish its purposes, and its burden on the citizens limited to what is acceptable; and finally (e) the state must be the creator or facilitator of actions for the human good.
If a state isn’t fulfilling these functions, then it is failing or has already failed
If a state isn’t fulfilling these functions, then it is failing or has already failed. However, in dealing with a failed state, one must determine what the nature of its failure is. Much of the difficulty when dealing with failed states in the past is that there has been little, if any, analysis of the causes behind any one particular failure. Yet it is foolhardy to apply any solution to an undefined problem.
Miller asserts that failed states can be categorized into five basic types, depending upon how they have failed: (a) the anarchic state, (b) the incapable state, (c) the unproductive state, (d) the barbaric state and (e) the illegitimate state. This essay addresses only North Korea, and while the repressive country is close to being the antithesis of the anarchic state, it does exhibit numerous characteristics of the other four types of failed states.
In incapable North Korea, the state is not able to provide its people with the most fundamentals of goods and services: adequate medical care, appropriate educational opportunities or reliable utility services – things that are taken for granted in first-world countries. Health and social measures clearly indicate that North Korea is failing its own citizens.
In unproductive North Korea, the state cannot provide its people with a stable economy in which there is opportunity to flourish. A classical definition that fits North Korea perfectly is that an unproductive state relies heavily on receiving outside aid – either financial or in-kind assistance – and depends upon selling off of its assets such as natural resources. North Korea does all of that – even renting out its own citizens as laborers to foreign countries in order to gain hard currency that is paid directly to the government.
In barbaric North Korea, the state criminalizes and harshly punishes its people for having “improper” thoughts or professing belief in unsanctioned ideologies. North Koreans are required to profess belief in “Juche,” what has been translated as “self-sufficiency” even though nothing could be further from reality. Its citizens are required to pay obeisance to Kimilsungism, which deifies the Kim family, in an attempt to legitimize its despotic rule. Travel is highly restricted and contact with outsiders is either forbidden outright or restricted to tightly controlled and highly scripted encounters. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts or watching South Korean television shows can mean long and severe prison sentences – even death.
The rule of the land is by fiat – do as Kim Jong Un and his elites say, not as they do
In illegitimate North Korea, the theory of justice is not in consonance with the wishes of the people, particularly now that much of the citizenry understands that what is codified is not what is practiced. The rule of the land is by fiat – do as Kim Jong Un and his elites say, not as they do. Bribery is commonly used to obtain services that are supposedly available for free or promised at a nominal fee. The “taxes” that are collected are capriciously applied and are most often merely shakedowns to line the pockets of authorities.
There have been muted discussions regarding whether the national consciences of other states ought to compel them to intervene on behalf of the common North Korean. In the meantime, it would seem that Northeast Asia is stuck with a North Korea that engages in misfeasance, malfeasance, and non-feasance. In other words, it is a failed state that is guilty of dereliction of duty toward its own citizens.
Regardless of whether other states intervene or simply await some precipitating event, there is a pervasive problem in most solutions to failed states, at least as they have been applied to date. There is a history of rushing to aid failed states, in part by first establishing a police force and then attempting to build a democracy. That has been the cookie-cutter approach despite obvious indicators that many failed states are either unable or unwilling to engage in true democracies. Those attempts have disregarded significant cultural and social differences along with the readiness by the citizenry of failed states to support such governments.
Any solution to the failed state of North Korea must include adequate response to the full spectrum of problems associated with each type of failure. For the incapable state, the basic needs of citizens and supporting infrastructure take priority. For the unproductive state, developing a self-sustaining economy that facilitates the requisite goods and services for all is paramount. For the barbaric state, a sense of justice must prevail such that punishments fit crimes and crimes are defined by how citizens and the state as a whole are harmed by any particular crime. For the illegitimate state, moving to a more representative and democratic form of elected government, one in which citizens can partake in confidence, is the challenge.
Until Northeast Asia is ready to deal with North Korea as a failed state, no one is prepared to deal with a North Korean collapse.
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Featured Image: Police control in North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2009-05-22 06:23:58