[Viewpoint] Can North Korea be like Burma?

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[Viewpoint] Can North Korea be like Burma?

There has been a sea change in U.S. policy to Burma or Myanmar. The silence in relations between Washington and Naypyidaw that had been in place since 1962 was shattered this month with the historic trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the remote Southeast Asian country. Clinton was the first secretary of state in over 50 years to visit the country. She met with President Thein Sein and with opposition leader and pro-democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi.

Her mission was to renew ties of friendship and support for the promising signs of political reform and opening taking place in the country. Clinton said, “The United States wants to be a partner with Burma. We want to work with you as you further democratization, as you release all political prisoners, as you begin the difficult but necessary process of ending the ethnic conflicts that have gone on far too long, as you hold elections that are free, fair and credible.”

How did this happen? Few would have expected that Burma, as isolated a country as North Korea, would see such an opening with the United States. Indeed, many Koreans may be scratching their heads wondering why such progress was possible with Naypyidaw, but not with Pyongyang.

First, the primary cause for the thaw in U.S.-Burmese relations did not come from a change in U.S. strategy. In other words, while the Obama administration appointed a special envoy for Burma, Derek Mitchell, the United States did not create the breakthrough with a dramatic shift in its policy paradigm. On the contrary, the U.S. diplomatic overtures are in direct response to watershed changes coming from within Burma. Experts all agree that these changes were sudden and unexpected. After Burma saw its first elections in 20 years bring a military-backed party to power, President Thein Sein, who hailed from the Burmese military, surprised the world over the past year by holding direct dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, relaxing some controls on society and releasing scores of political prisoners. Thus, the Burmese created this watershed change more than the United States. When asked why this change came about, some experts have pointed to the role played by Burma’s “enlightened generals” who, after trips abroad, realized how far behind their own country was, and saw the need to integrate with the world community more fully than remain in decrepit self-isolation.

Second, the diplomatic breakthrough could not have been facilitated with the role played by Aung San Suu Kyi. By reaching out to this pro-democracy leader, the Burmese regime could send credible signals to the United States and the world that it was serious about reform. U.S. policy today is tied very tightly to Aung San Suu Kyi. Her views inform how forward-leaning Washington will be in its outreach to President Thein Sein’s government.

The contrast with North Korea could not be starker. As far as we can tell, there is no “enlightened class” of military generals in the North who understand the state’s dire condition enough to seek political reform. The truly enlightened in North Korea thrived not during the post-cold war era, but during the height of the cold war. KPA generals and party leaders could travel freely to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly East Germany and Romania. The current generation is arguably the most isolated in North Korean history.

And secondly, there is no symbolic figure in North Korea who is lionized in the United States as a champion of democracy, through whom a reformist government could credibly signal its genuine reformist intentions. The regime in Pyongyang has deliberately and effectively rendered nameless and faceless any political dissidents or antiregime activists. If there is no individual face who can personalize the resistance, such as Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or Kim Dae-jung in authoritarian South Korea, then there can be no magnet for international support.

So Burma’s tentative path to opening cannot be duplicated in North Korea. But the comparison poses an interesting dilemma for China. Here is the dilemma: Beijing’s desire to promote reform in North Korea, if successful, will only cause them to lose substantive influence with the regime. China is the only country that has substantive contact with the North Korean military. Based on the Burmese example, China should bring as many Korean People’s Army generals as possible out of the North to visit cities in China and energize this cadre to think like the enlightened Burmese generals.

This would be entirely consistent with China’s long-term strategy to get North Korea to adopt Deng Xiaoping-like reforms. At CSIS, we have a study that tracks every visit that Kim Jong-il took to China since 1980. A list of the places the Chinese took the North Korean leader (e.g., computer, cell phone, car, fiber optics factories) belies a clear, but futile effort on the part of China to encourage reform. Perhaps the target of these Chinese invitations from now on should not be Kim Jong-il, but the KPA generals close to Kim Jong-un.

But the dilemma that China faces from such a strategy is that the more deeply intertwined China seeks to become with encouraging reform in the North, the more likely it will lose influence with Pyongyang. This is because any power that gets fully in bed with a big country like China, sooner or later, that power seeks to hedge against being dominated by China. Burma is a perfect example of this. A third driver of the opening in U.S.-Burmese relations is not just the government’s reform policies, and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but Rangoon’s desires to avoid becoming entirely beholden to the Chinese, and therefore to hedge against this dominance by reaching out to the United States. Today, North Korea is fully in bed with the Chinese. Sooner or later, their discomfort with this arrangement will compel them to reach out to the United States.

*The writer is a professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.


By Victor Cha
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