Author: Andray Abrahamian, Choson Exchange
Myanmar and North Korea were Asia’s pariahs. Both countries emerged from colonial rule to face immediate and existential security threats. Myanmar feared that internal insurgents would tear the country apart. North Korea was competing for legitimacy against South Korea and its superpower ally the United States, which at the time occupied half of what Pyongyang considered to be its rightful territory.
In the post-Cold War era, both states found themselves sanctioned and isolated from the global economy and plagued by poverty caused by mismanagement and self-imposed attempts at autarky. They faced condemnation and pressure from the West while becoming over-reliant on China both strategically and economically.
One country found its way out of isolation, while the other has remained a global pariah. What explains these divergent paths?
There is one main structural reason. Myanmar was, unlike North Korea, able to address its core security threat in the 1990s. It then had the space to engineer a transition towards a more open system, which addressed the reasons for its censure.
Pyongyang’s response to its core security threat was to develop nuclear weapons and an attendant missile program. In doing so, it has trapped itself. North Korea is a pariah precisely because of how it has approached its core security concern. It cannot sequence a solution the way Myanmar did.
In Myanmar’s case, the solution came partly due to luck and partly due to decades of brutal counter-insurgency. From 1968, the Myanmar military — known as the Tatmadaw — promulgated a ‘four cuts’ doctrine, which sought to cripple opposition armed groups by limiting their access to food, funds, recruits and intelligence. This meant the brutal uprooting of hundreds of thousands of people from conflict zones to isolate rebel armies. The burning villages and convoys of dispossessed refugees seen recently in Rakhine State are not an unfamiliar image.
Luck arrived with the rapid decline of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The main group of Communists had been fighting the state since 1948 but had long been confined to a small area in the north of the country. In April 1989, the CPB’s leadership was overthrown and chased into exile in China. Within weeks the new leadership was swearing off Marxist revolution and negotiating a peace deal.
This sent shockwaves through the insurgent establishment as many other armed groups depended on the CPB for weapons and intelligence. By 1995 most major groups ceased fighting. None of the armed groups have been in a position to challenge the state since.
In the early 2000s Myanmar’s leaders began in earnest to explore the possibility of democratic transition to satisfy Aung San Suu Kyi and the international community, hoping that sanctions could be removed.
North Korea was always interested in nuclear weapons — they had seen what the bomb had done in Japan and lived in fear of their use during the Korean War. They convinced the Soviets to provide them with training and an experimental reactor in the 1980s.
Even when the Soviet Union collapsed, the DPRK — in a position of strategic vulnerability — pushed ahead with its nuclear weapons program. This led to a crisis in 1993–94 that came close to military conflict, but eventually a breakthrough agreement was reached. North Korea was to freeze and dismantle its nuclear reactors in exchange for fuel aid and two new light-water nuclear reactors, incapable of producing weapons-grade fissile material.
The deal collapsed in 2002. The following year Beijing convened talks between China, Russia, Japan, the United States and the two Koreas. Talks dragged on until 2008 and have not been convened since. Upcoming summits with South Korea and United States may lead to a breakthrough but it is unlikely that we will see genuine denuclearisation.
Moreover, North Korea is doubly insulated from domestic pressures to open and reform. Pyongyang has maintained a degree of legitimacy among its population to a degree that Myanmar has never achieved. Corruption and repression meant the Tatmadaw was always deeply unpopular.
North Korea also created an apparatus of control and repression that far exceeds anything Myanmar was able to achieve. This includes border control, censorship, prisons and an authoritarian licence that grants its leader the ability to expansively interpret what kinds of individuals and ideas constitute a threat to the state. There are no platforms to channel dissent and the costs of transgression are incredibly high.
Living with a nuclear North Korea is problematic but getting them to get rid of their weapons may be impossible.
In Myanmar, the Rakhine crisis is casting a pall over the country. The path towards an inclusive society that protects minority rights is entirely unclear. We should be happy with how far Myanmar has come, but democratic rights are far from enshrined.
Myanmar and North Korea’s stories teach us that the pathways out of isolation for pariah states are filled with impasses — impasses often born of how states choose to respond to their immediate security threats.
Andray Abrahamian is a Researcher at Pacific Forum CSIS and Adjunct Fellow at Griffith Asia Institute. He is the author of North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths.