After debuting the Asia Power Index in 2018, Sydney’s Lowy Institute rolled out an updated version of the tool in late May.
The Index utilizes over 30,000 data points over 126 indicators, which fit into eight thematic areas of power: economic resources, military capability, resilience, future resources, diplomatic influence, economic relationships, defense networks, and cultural influence.
Displayed through an interactive web tool, the Index allows users to play with the findings by adjusting the assigned weightings for the eight core measures.
While the extent of the Index’s utility may not be realized for years to come, as it builds on itself to allow for more long-term comparisons and tracking, the 2019 Index contains some interesting points for North Korea watchers.
First is North Korea’s move from 17th place with a score of 11.4 (out of 100) in 2018 to 16th place with a score of 14 in 2019. Both scores place the DPRK at the bottom of the ‘middle powers’ group, far from the superpowers (U.S. and China) and major powers (Japan and India).
The change in rank saw the DPRK overtake the Philippines to relieve itself from occupying the final place among the middle powers in the region, which also include Russia, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Pakistan.
Rounding out the index are the minor powers, all with a score of less than ten – Bangladesh, Brunei, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, and Nepal.
While other countries had changes in score and ranking, the DPRK’s is notable also for being the most significant power score change after China (who went from 75.5 to 85 points).
UNPACKING THE DPRK’S SCORE
The DPRK’s scores across the eight thematic power measures are notably, though not unsurprisingly, inconsistent.
It ranks dead last for economic relationships, scoring zero points. The Index explains that international sanctions against the country play a significant role in this, though the DPRK’s pre-sanctions score would likely have still been extremely low as economic relations are conceptualized as ‘the capacity to exercise influence and leverage through economic interdependencies.’
While other areas, such as diplomacy, have helped the DPRK rise in the rankings for this year, its lack of economic clout is likely to inhibit significant growth in future editions of the Index.
Economic resources, a separate thematic indicator, has the DPRK coming in 19th.
With no points in the indicators for size, international leverage, or connectivity, the DPRK’s 14.4 points for technology boost it from being at the very bottom of the group here.
Cultural influence scores are similarly low, with the DPRK and Mongolia sharing the same bottom-of-the-pile score of 2 to come in joint 24th place. With cultural projection, information flows, and people exchanges as thematic areas feeding into this measure, it is unsurprising that the DPRK ranks so meagrely.
In the defense network measure, the DPRK ranks 21st, though in military capability it ranks sixth. The major gaps in scores between these two related fields are demonstrative of the large size and deployment-ready – or at least, perceived to be deployment-ready – North Korean military, as well as the DPRK’s relative lack of a defense partnership network.
South Korea, by contrast, ranks third in defense networks and fifth in military capability.
The DPRK moved ahead an impressive five places in diplomatic influence to rest at 16th in 2019. At a launch event for the index in Melbourne in July, Lowy’s Hervé Lemahieu and Bonnie Bley highlighted Kim Jong Un’s summitry as key for improving North Korean standing in this measure.
This appears largely to be reflected under the ‘foreign policy’ indicator, though longer-term impacts of Kim’s summits will reveal if they are sufficiently able ‘to advance [his] state’s or territory’s diplomatic interests’ in a sustainable fashion.
The uneven distribution of [the DPRK’s] scores… hints at an unstable place in the rankings
Resilience, largely connected to stability and security, sees the DPRK doing relatively well overall, coming in 10th place.
A look at the asymmetric points across sub rankings, however, reveals significant gaps. Nuclear deterrence is very high, as having such a high-profile nuclear program could be expected to achieve, but geo-economic security has the DPRK ranked at 24th.
These measures echo the major points of contention between the U.S. and the DPRK – sanctions relief and denuclearization.
The DPRK is placed firmly in the middle for ‘future resources,’ with the indicator ‘broad resources 2030’ placing it in 9th place. This indicator measures projected economic resources, military capacity, and resilience based on GDP and trends in military expenditure.
While sanctions make a significant impact on other indicators across the Index, broad resources 2030 seems to signal a projection that the DPRK will withstand the sanctions.
USES AND LIMITATIONS
The Index is an interesting – and even fun – tool for North Korea watchers to engage with.
Some of its most useful applications are in its relativity – the Index ranks countries in Asia against each other, showcasing not necessarily absolute differences in power and resources but ones that reflect a state’s standing amongst its regional neighbors.
Users may disagree with the Index’s distribution of influence for measures and indicators, though there is a function to adjust them according to one’s own belief in their relative importance.
Major trends from this year’s Index show the DPRK making gains, not in small part due to Kim’s engagement with his counterparts in key states, but also demonstrate the DPRK’s continued isolation as it scores poorly across measures that highlight networks and interconnectivity.
The DPRK has managed to hold onto a place amongst the middle powers for the last two years, but the uneven distribution of its scores – not only across the eight thematic measures but also at the indicator level within individual measures – hints at an unstable place in the rankings.
Consistent engagement areas that boosted the DPRK, such as diplomatic influence, are also not guaranteed.
The DPRK cannot slip further in many indicators, where it already holds zero points, so must hold on to the relative gains it has or improve in other areas if it is to sustain or surpass its ranking in 2020.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
After debuting the Asia Power Index in 2018, Sydney’s Lowy Institute rolled out an updated version of the tool in late May.The Index utilizes over 30,000 data points over 126 indicators, which fit into eight thematic areas of power: economic resources, military capability, resilience, future resources, diplomatic influence, economic relationships, defense networks, and cultural influence.
Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at Deakin University's Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Her research interests include the DPRK, humanitarian aid, disaster management and civil society.