That doesn't mean they aren't capable of pulling off surprises against the top sides, but their results against them are inconsistent therefore they only sporadically qualify for major tournaments.
North Korea normally have no problem navigating the East Asian Championship
North Korea is the side that often takes the one spot in the second round of qualifying in the EAFF (East Asian Football Federation) Championship. The difference in the level of football being played between North Korea and the competition is normally so wide that they can navigate their route to the final every time at a stroll.
The competition for North Korea in the second normally comes in the shape of Guam (although Mongolia was in the second round this time), Taiwan and Hong Kong. These sides haven't had the required quality to damage North Korea's chances in the past but that was all about to change this time around.
North Korea came unstuck, as Hong Kong outscore them
North Korea came unstuck in Taipei against an attack-orientated Hong Kong who is now under the tutelage of Gary White a manager renowned for getting his sides to attack. That attacking impetus was what got Hong Kong over the line in the end and what caused the downfall of North Korea, one more goal scored in the favour of Hong Kong enough to eliminate the North Koreans.
North Korea's setup was confusing, they knew they had to take the game to Taiwan in the final game to outscore Hong Kong, but they still played their same slow calculated game, that coupled with a fine performance from Taiwan keeper Pan Wen-chie Saw North Korea go out of the competition for the first time in eight years, when their football team looked to be heading in the correct direction especially as their government are starting to try and get players overseas, even with the difficulties involved in doing that.
Does this prove North Korea are stagnating?
North Korea seems to be forever stagnating in purgatory like Tottenham, to steal Colin Farrell's famous line from the movie 'In Bruges'. Stuck as one of those second-tier sides in Asia; the bottom sides are no match for them, but the top sides' level is too superior that their inconsistent form against them isn't enough to propel them into being an elite AFC team.
There's some way to go before North Korea get to be considered an elite Asian side, but they need to be careful that they also don't stagnate and see themselves being caught up by other nations, which could possibly see them falling behind a host of up-and-coming footballing countries. The difficulty of getting their players playing overseas cannot be helping the progression of their football, and that isn't anything that is going to change for some time. Therefore North Korea could find it difficult to break into the elite, but they have the potential to do so.