If a country with North Korea’s political and economic record had existed in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America or the Caucasus it would have elicited only human rights condemnations. North Korea’s rulers, including the recently deceased Kim Jong-il, have overseen famines that have led to the deaths of millions. The country has been driven to such economic straits that its people are a foot shorter than their southern counterparts. Thousands pay traffickers to flee the country and seek a better life. The elite live in remarkable luxury — the late Kim was one of the largest individual buyers of cognac in the world. Yet North Korea’s regime survives. Its actions are regularly denounced and it is theoretically under layers of sanctions, but even non-governmental organisations treat it as a corner of the world that is beyond redemption.
However, it is more than just what the regime does to its own people that is reprehensible. North Korea is the quintessential rogue State. In other words, a country which deliberately carries out actions designed to imperil the stability of its region, if not the world. Pyongyang sees its attempts to upset the international system — whether trading missiles and uranium centrifuges, firing ballistic missiles and sponsoring the odd terrorist attack — as logical means to keep itself secure both at home and from threats abroad. There are three reasons why North Korea’s roguishness is tolerated. First is its geopolitical location. Because it is a buffer between China and the northeastern allies of the US, Beijing has been the country’s lifeline in every possible way. Second, it has a regime whose grip on its people makes even China’s rule mild by comparison. Finally, North Korea has nuclear weapons and this makes external intervention in the country almost impossible. It must collapse from within.
While Indians may see North Korea as a distant hermit kingdom, they should perhaps take a closer look because of its rogue State status. The country that parallels the behaviour of North Korea the closest is Pakistan. It is clear elements of Pakistan’s military and establishment function like North Korea’s. They seek security and the accomplishment of State aims by being bad boys to the global system — supporting terrorism, selling nuclear equipment and generally declining to abide by agreements or treaties. And it has the Bomb to defend its own dysfunctionality. Indians often fret about their inability to contain Pakistan’s destructive habits. They should look at how difficult it has been for even more powerful nations to contain those of North Korea — and realise that reeling in a rogue State is as much about patience and guile as it is about power and will.