Criminal States vs. Failed States

by DOUGLAS FARAH November 3, 2009
Yesterday's Washington Post had an interesting article on how the North Korean military is now the primary extractive body of the North Korean establishment, and is, in fact, relatively efficient at extracting natural resources to sell to China and elsewhere.
It is an important piece because it highlights a much broader reality that we have been slow to come to grips with. In almost any index of failed states, North Korea ranks fairly high. But in reality it is not a failed state at all. It retains the capacity to efficiently extract what it (the state) needs for survival. It may not provide basic necessities such as fuel, food, clothing, education, medical service or sewage, but it is efficient at what it sets out to do. And this economic extractive capacity is the key to perpetrating the regimes in power.
The primary danger of these criminal-extractive states (such as Liberia under Charles Taylor, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea under the Obiang clan) is that they offer criminal and terrorist organizations ideal circumstances in which to operate. In fact, these overlapping networks are essential to the survival of the state as criminal syndicate.
Because these states rely on criminal networks for their economic survival (North Korea on counterfeit currency, illicit nuclear technology sales etc.; Charles Taylor on blood diamonds), and terrorist organizations increasingly rely on criminal organizations and activities for funding and facilitation, these states become host organisms to criminal and terrorist parasites.
In fact, these criminal states rely on criminal/terrorist networks to provide the illicit funds that make them viable.
This is what makes them so dangerous. Diplomatic passports from North Korea are recognized around the world, granting the bearer diplomatic immunity, despite the fact that the regime has demonstrably abused the system to engage in criminal activities.
I argue in some of my writings that these criminal states are in many ways more dangerous than the "ungoverned spaces" that have become the topic of much discussion in recent years. While almost every space is, in fact, governed by someone even if it is not the state, the value for training, indoctrination and relatively free movement is indeed valuable. But not nearly as valuable as ongoing access to a state apparatus, no matter how creaky that apparatus is.
The North Koreans control entry and exit points to their country, meaning they can guarantee the safe passage of Iranians or anyone else visiting nuclear facilities. It means they can guarantee the safe passage of nuclear goods and services out of the country with impunity. It is much better to have the state on your side than trying to just bribe or corrupt small parts of it. The risk is much less and the profits more secure.
Taylor granted diplomatic passports to international criminals, and allowed Viktor Bout and other war profiteers to use the Liberian aircraft registry to hide their aircraft. He allowed Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Russian organized crime, Ukrainian organized crime, Israeli organized crime and South African organized crime to all operate in Liberia, for the exact same reason North Korea can prosper. He could guarantee that the state, rather than seeking them out to punish them, would in fact protect them.
This characterization of a growing number of states (criminal states) is largely missing from our discussions of terrorism. It needs to be factored in, especially when nuclear armed countries become criminal syndicates. Contributing Editor Douglas Farah is an award-winning investigative journalist and Senior Fellow in Financial Investigations and Transparency at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. E-mail him at

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