The visit of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to Russia, and the possible visit of Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang, represent the top layer of a global partnership of failed states that have been bound more closely together since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Unlike Haiti or some African countries, the governments of Russia and North Korea are still very much in control of nearly everything inside their borders. So why regard them as “failed states?” The answer is that they and their partners fail to provide the basics for human development and mutual trust.

The UN Human Development Index (HDI) ranks countries by their physical health (life expectancy), education (years of schooling), and material well-being (GDP per capita). The index is not perfect, but it provides the best single picture of global trends. By all these measures, Switzerland and Norway came out on top. Hong Kong, before China’s takeover, ranked fourth in the world on the HDI, while recent decades saw Canada fall to 15th and the USA to 21st.

A measure of mutual trust can be found in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Here too, Scandinavia ranks highest, joined by New Zealand and Singapore. Canada ranks 14th and the USA 24th.

Using data from before the Ukraine war, Russia ranked 52nd on the HDI, its life expectancy falling to 69 years, and its GDP per capita at $22,000. Basic honesty in Russia, as measured by the CPI in 2022, was among the lowest anywhere — 137th out of 180 countries on the index.

Vladimir Putin’s new comrades in North Korea hide most measures of human development, but millions of North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s and many are short of food in 2023. Still, the UN reports that North Korea’s life expectancy is higher than Russia’s at 73.3.

North Korea’s CPI, however, rates the DPRK at 171st, very nearly the worst in the world. Various measures of people’s power say that the DPRK is the least free country anywhere, although Putin appears indifferent to these numbers as long as Kim Jong Un can trade him ammunition for technology and food.  

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Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping claim to be best friends, but the putative superpower ranks much lower on the HDI than Russia – at 79 in the world, three places below Russia’s drone suppliers in Iran (76) and worse than Belarus (at 60).

China’s life expectancy, however, at 78.2 years is eight years higher than Russia’s and about four years higher than Iran’s. China’s CPI score is also much better than Russia’s — 65th in the world versus 137th. Per capita income in China was $17,500 in 2017, when these numbers were gathered, compared with $22,200 in Russia (at least in major cities). By 2023, however, Chinese incomes have gone up and Russians’ down.

Nine more failed states tend to vote with Russia at the United Nations. They include Cuba (HDI ranking 83), South Africa (109), Vietnam (115), Venezuela (120), India (132), Laos (140), Cambodia (146), Syria (150), and Mali (186). India is included in this list because, while it is becoming a major power in outer space, it does poorly by its own people.

How solid is this failed state partnership? China and Russia have, after all, voted for UN sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The ostensible solidarity between Russia and China could also easily return to the mutual hostility that prevailed for most of the last 500 years, and while India and China now show up at the same conferences (although not always) but are virtually at war in the Himalayas.

Professor Leif Eric-Easley, at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, was probably correct when he told the New York Times: “Trust is so low among Russia, North Korea, and China that a real alliance of the three isn’t credible or sustainable.” 

The total population of these failed states makes up well over half of humanity. If their goods and services are combined, however, they produce no more than one-quarter of the global GDP. The United States and its European and Asian partners, generate more than half of the world’s GDP. If major Latin American countries were included, the weight of free world economic power would be still higher.

Even if the failed states could trust each other enough to form an effective alliance, since most forms of hard and soft power depend on economic strength, the free world is still far ahead.

Walter Clemens is an Associate at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. His latest book is Blood Debts: What Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims (Westphalia, July 2023).

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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