Academic journal article Asian Perspective

North Korea and Transitioning Myanmar in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

North Korea and Transitioning Myanmar in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and the Union of the Republic of Myanmar, through the 1990s and 2000s, found themselves increasingly sanctioned, criticized, and isolated. For Myanmar, this was because of its suppression of democracy and treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi. For North Korea, it was primarily due to its nuclear and missile programs. Yet Myanmar found itself able to escape the sanctions regimes it was under, transition toward a more democratic system, and rejoin international trade and investment flows.

In this article I examine why Myanmar's leaders felt able to do this, while North Korea's are unable to follow a similar path. I argue that Myanmar's leaders were able to find a solution to the country's core security concerns before taking the steps needed to alleviate its status as a pariah. Pyongyang has been unable to find such a sequence.

It is essential to understand how both North Korea and Myanmar were states born of conflict, embedding core security threats in the two countries' development that shaped the thinking and policies of generations of leaders. These threats were fracture and secession for Myanmar. For North Korea it was, and is, defeat by a superpower and a rival state, South Korea. In response to these threats, both countries became martial states and failed to participate in the historic levels of economic growth taking place in East Asia because of these perceived security concerns.

However, Myanmar took a number of steps from 1989 through the 2000s to protect the position of the state vis-a-vis rebel groups that threatened it, through battlefield victories and peace deals. Once its leaders felt the state's position was secure, they relieved pressure on the democratic movement and in turn found sanctions relief and other benefits. North Korea-unable to defeat the United States and South Korea in war-has attempted to respond to its core security concern through its nuclear and missile programs. Since these programs have become the main reason for Pyongyang's becoming a sanctions target, they are unable to alleviate those pressures without undermining the programs they see as the very things safeguarding their state's security.

Other factors play a role in the relative positions of both states. North Korea's systems of information control, incarceration, and ideology are all more comprehensive than in Myanmar, contributing to Pyongyang's relatively limited interest in system reform.

Descent to Pariah Status


The definition of a pariah state is contestable, but any attempt must focus on states who suffer international rebuke or punishment because of policies that deviate from international norms. Some argue that in the post-Cold War era, core norms that pariah states violate might include terrorism and other threats to peace, lack of democracy and human rights, and war crimes or other crimes against humanity (Geldenhuys 2004). Others note that "rogue states" in this time period might also be defined as states that challenge US interests (Litwak 2000, 47). There is a degree of fluidity and overlap, as the term pariah has cultural, but not legal, foundations. Regardless, being rebuked or punished for violating a set of global norms or for challenging the interests of global or regional hegemonies also seems to be important.

As the Cold War wound down, both Burma/Myanmar (the name would be changed in 1989) and the DPRK were faced with stark choices as global norms and strategic alliances shifted. Ultimately, these choices would earn them their pariah statuses.

Burma chose to violently suppress a democratic movement and its talismanic activist-Aung San Suu Kyi-to such an extent that the country was sanctioned and shunned by the West. North Korea chose to pursue nuclear weapons and an attendant missile program, earning it not only unilateral sanctions but also UN sanctions.

For Burma, the tumultuous events of August and September 1988 were preceded by being put on the UN's humiliating least developed countries list. …

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