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North Korea and Transitioning Myanmar in Comparative Perspective.

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. Burma's foreign debt had risen from $1 billion in 1979 to over $4 billion in 1988. External debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratios had grown to 45 percent by 1986 (Colligen 2001, 89). Nearly half of the country's minuscule economic output had to go to servicing debts. A catastrophic currency revaluation in 1987 (to be echoed by the DPRK twenty-two years later) slashed the savings of much of the population.

Student unrest built throughout the spring and when the police cracked down in March, they did so violently, killing dozens. In one horrifying incident, forty-one students were crammed into a police van and suffocated to death. Bodies were quickly cremated and news of it suppressed (Htun Khaing 2016). Tales of rape and torture soon emerged and spread throughout Rangoon and over the hot months of April to June the student organizers decided to get local citizens involved. Eventually they called for a general strike on August 8, 1988, or as it is now known, 8888. The military--not just the police--responded savagely. In times of upheaval and repression, keeping statistics on violence is impossible. However, "reliable diplomatic observers estimate that over a thousand people were killed and more than two thousand were wounded" (Htun Khaing 2016).

After four days of mayhem, the military pulled back and promised reforms. The country was looking for leadership in this moral vacuum and Aung San Suu Kyi stepped in. Though she was an expat most her life, her oratory and charm quickly captured the hearts of her country and the whole world. The emotional high was soon to end, however.

On September 18, the military staged an internal coup (of sorts) and set up the Bond-villain-named SLORC, or State Law and Order Restoration Council. Troops flooded back into the cities, shooting freely. Again, thousands were killed (Human Rights Watch 1990, 3). Surprisingly, SLORC then announced there would be elections in 1990 and a transition toward democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest with little justification on July 20, 1989. In January 1990, she was ruled ineligible to stand for election, but it was too late. On election day, May 27, her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 80 percent of parliamentary seats and 60 percent of the total votes (Guyot 1991). Embarrassingly, the NLD even won on the Coco Islands, which are almost entirely populated by military personnel and their families (San Yamin Aung 2015).

SLORC, despite its many promises, prevaricated about the results, arguing that when the election took place, there had not been a constitution (Nay Htun Naing 2015). They would not hand over control of the government. Aung San Suu Kyi was labeled a threat and put under house arrest for most of the next twenty years. She was encouraged to leave the country and only allowed out for short periods when the military was experimenting with seeming conciliation.

On one such occasion in 2002 to 2003, she was even allowed to campaign again, though she was constantly harassed as she traveled around the country demanding the 1990 election results be honored. That harassment sharply escalated toward an attempt on her life on May 30, 2003, at what became known as the Depayin Massacre. There, some 5,000 supporters of the military lay in wait, well-armed and prepared to mete out violence against Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage as they passed through the area. Two withering attacks left perhaps seventy people killed (Preliminary Report 2003).

A few years later, in 2007, there was violence meted out again by the state in what became known as the Saffron Revolution, named after the color of monks' robes. Then, after several weeks of protests that began with complaints over inflation-causing government policies, the military unleashed a wave of shootings and beatings in Yangon; monks and monasteries were not spared (Rogers 2010). The world and the country watched in revulsion this time, as cell phone cameras and the Internet allowed imagery to be shared globally.

The images of the beating and shooting of the clergy shocked the world. Altogether, the total number of dead, injured, and imprisoned will never be known, but reasonable estimates are of 140 to 200 killed nationwide and over 2,000 locked up in the aftermath. The mismanagement of the response to Cyclone Nargis the next year further eroded the tenuous legitimacy of the military.

For its sins, the military rulers of Myanmar suffered multiple rounds of sanctions that isolated the economy even as the military had transitioned away from socialism. Just two months into office, President George W. Bush removed the country from the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, a scheme that is supposed to help low-income countries export to the US market (Saw Yan Naing 2007). From 1990 the United States withheld appointing an ambassador to Rangoon/Yangon. (This lasted until 2012.)

Multiple bills made their way through the US Congress, perhaps most significantly the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1997 imposed various specific sanctions on Burma and gave the president discretionary power to decide if and when human rights and democracy standards had been met. It banned all new investment into Myanmar. Meanwhile, the European Union introduced sanctions after 1990 and strengthened them in 1996, creating a blacklist on investment with designated entities and a travel ban for named individuals.

The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 was a direct response to this brutal affair and prohibited the import of any Myanmar-made product into the United States. On July 28, 2003, President George W. Bush implemented the act, which froze the assets of certain Burmese officials and banned the provision of financial services to Burma.

Also in 2003, Myanmar was designated a "primary money laundering concern" under section 311 of the US Patriot Act. This effectively cut off Myanmar from the US dollar system by denying "Burmese financial institutions access to the US financial system through correspondent accounts." This not only stopped US banks from conducting transactions but it also extended "to any correspondent account maintained by a US financial institution or any foreign bank if the account is used by the foreign bank to provide a Burmese financial institution indirect access to the US financial system" (US Department of the Treasury 2003). The United States passed more sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, expanding travel and import bans.

The US sanctions on Myanmar had taken on a very emotional quality in which the personal fate of Aung San Suu Kyi was an avatar for human suffering: and no one could be seen voting for human suffering. Her fate and her opinions drove US policy. Sanctions were seen as giving her leverage: she supported them, judging that they gave her bargaining power. Her moral authority meant that as long as she kept a pro-sanctions position, no US politician could really be seen as arguing against it. As David Steinberg puts it, "for about two decades there was almost no public policy dialogue on alternative policies on Myanmar in Washington, in contrast to all other foreign policy issues in troubled areas. Policy was traumatized and focused on democracy, human rights, and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi" (2015, 433).

The role and value of sanctions are highly contested in a number of ways. With Myanmar, sanctions certainly harmed the economy, putting most imported goods out of reach of most consumers by adding to the costs of international transactions. There is also good evidence that the shrinking pie meant only businesses closest to the regime could survive. This is visible in the textile industry most clearly (Toshihiro 2008, 1008).

It is clear that the regime was pushed unwillingly into China's arms, as its giant neighbor became Myanmar's dominant trade partner and investor. According to Chinese statistics, in 1989 bilateral trade was just $313.72 million, by 1995 it was $767.40 million, and by 2008 it was $2,625.43 million. China has always run surpluses with Myanmar, though some speculate that this is balanced by illegal jade and drug trading or other hidden, off-book investments (Maung Aung Myoe 2010).

Myanmar's leaders were compelled toward finding a way out of the overreliance on China. As one observer put it, "a long tradition of nationalism, self-reliance and even xenophobia suggests Rangoon had no intention of becoming a Chinese pawn, and that as soon as conditions permitted, it would move to reduce its dependence on Beijing" (Storey 2007). In this sense, sanctions did influence the regime in the direction the West wanted, eventually--and on the regime's terms, largely.

North Korea

North Korea's descent into pariah status has come from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The first nuclear crisis flowed from a dispute over Pyongyang's declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1993, Pyongyang threatened to leave the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in the following year conflict emerged along these lines: The United States said if North Korea did not comply with NPT obligations, sanctions would be imposed. North Korea said sanctions would be treated as an act of war. Eventually, Pyongyang crossed one of Washington's red lines when they removed the fuel rods from their 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor without international monitors present, destroying evidence and creating a weapons-use fuel stockpile (Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci 2004). War seemed imminent when in 1994 former president Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang and brokered a deal.

Following Carter's mission, Pyongyang agreed to cooperate with the IAEA in exchange for fuel and the construction of light-water nuclear reactors. The United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and others formed the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to oversee the program.

Unfortunately, politicking in Washington meant parts of its side of the bargain went unfulfilled (Chinoy 2008). Pyongyang, for its part, hedged on the deal by pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program. The second crisis emerged in 2002 when the George W. Bush administration found evidence of this program and confronted the Koreans with it. The United States stopped fuel shipments in December 2002. Pyongyang kicked out IAEA inspectors the same month and the KEDO was dead.

China convened multilateral negotiations in August 2003 between six parties: the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. There were ups and downs, but a high point was the agreement of all parties to a statement in September 2005, which affirmed the joint goal of a "verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner" ("Joint Statement" 2005). All parties also agreed in principle that light-water reactors would have to be provided and other energy assistance would be given.

With progress stalling in 2006 and the US Treasury moving against North Korea, Pyongyang decided to up the stakes and conducted a nuclear test on October 9, 2006. The UN Security Council responded with a sanctions resolution.

Talks continued, but so did Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs. On April 5, 2009, North Korea launched the three-stage Unha-2 rocket in violation of previous UN sanctions. Following the UN's response--more sanctions--Pyongyang kicked out IAEA inspectors and declared the Six-Party Talks had come to an end. On May 25, Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test. More UN sanctions followed.

On March 16, 2012, Pyongyang announced it would soon launch a satellite to celebrate the centennial birthdate of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung. This launch failed, but Pyongyang followed up with a second, more successful attempt in December. In response, the UN Security Council passed a sanctions resolution on January 22, 2013; Pyongyang followed up with its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. More sanctions followed.

Pyongyang lost interest in discussing denuclearization in any meaningful sense, and more missile tests of varying types took place in the following years. In 2016, Pyongyang tested not just one but two nuclear devices.

Through the 1990s, the United States imposed minor, mostly symbolic sanctions on North Korea for missile technology-related transfers and proliferation, as well as for cooperation with Pakistan. It was during the second nuclear crisis that significant sanctions began. The first and probably still most important action was the September 2005 US Treasury designation of Banco Delta Asia, the fourth smallest bank in Macao, as a primary money laundering concern because of its relationships with North Korean companies. The Macao authorities quickly moved to freeze some $25 million in North Korean funds, which took eighteen months to release, much to the consternation of Pyongyang.

Banco Delta Asia lost its access to the US dollar trading system. The risks of dealing with North Korea were suddenly magnified by a huge degree. Any bank dealing with North Korean companies, banks, or individuals was suddenly terrified they could lose access to the US dollar system if they were caught out. Given the DPRK's opacity, it was and is extremely hard for a bank to conduct due diligence investigations: it is easier just to steer clear of anything with a whiff of North Korea associated with it.

Subsequent US designations have taken place--some eighty-six people were put on the Specially Designated Nationals list from 2006 to 2015 (US Government Accountability Office 2015). Kim Jong-un was designated in 2016. Also in 2016, North Korea was designated--like Myanmar had been thirteen years before--as a "jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern," essentially extending the same sanction imposed on Banco Delta Asia to the whole country (US Department of the Treasury 2016).

These unilateral sanctions have been augmented by sanctions by Japan, South Korea, and other countries as well as a United Nations multilateral sanctions regime. Since 2006, the Security Council has passed significant sanctions resolutions targeting the DPRK, something Burma/Myanmar never faced.

Provisions in these sanctions regimes are varied. The two rounds of UN sanctions passed in 2016 following a fifth nuclear test put a cap on coal exports, imposing a $400 million (or 7.5 million ton) cap on the exportation of coal. With coal worth nearly $1 billion and the DPRK's total exports worth $2.7 billion, this represented more than 22 percent of the value of merchandise goods exports. New limits on exports of copper, nickel, silver, and zinc worth approximately $100 million a year were also imposed (Noland 2016).

Bankers face many restrictions: the DPRK cannot open new bank branches in member states and it bars foreign banks or companies from taking ownership stakes or maintaining correspondent banking relationships with North Korean banks. Member states also must shut down North Korean banks within their borders. Foreign banks can still maintain offices and accounts in North Korea that already exist. There are also restrictions on shipping and activities of diplomats.

The DPRK is less accessible to foreigners than Myanmar, so judging the impact of sanctions is more difficult--the study that looked at the textile industry in Myanmar would not be possible in North Korea. Still, some evidence suggests that the hinterlands suffer more than the capital. One innovative study looked at nighttime satellite imagery and found relative distribution of light, and therefore electricity, increases toward Pyongyang after sanctions events (Lee 2014).

Sanctions have also made the DPRK overreliant on China, as other countries have banned or discouraged trade with North Korea. China-North Korea trade has increased more than tenfold since the early 2000s. China came to account for 91.3 percent of total North Korean trade in 2015, according to South Korean estimates (KOTRA 2016). Those estimates excluded inter-Korean trade, but since the 2016 shuttering of the joint manufacturing complex in Kaesong, such percentages can be assumed to be roughly accurate. Pyongyang loathes this overreliance but is prepared to endure it for the time being. Its reluctance to be reliant on China is outweighed by its commitment to developing weapons that keep it a sanctioned entity.

States Born of War and Core Security Concerns

Both Myanmar and North Korea became pariah states in the 1990s and both shared a number of features, in particular a militarization of society and lack of political freedoms. Before seeing how Myanmar has embarked on a drastically different path in recent years, we must understand why these two states ended up with highly militarized governance structures that pursued policies that created isolation and poverty.

In both cases, it is because the leaders of both countries faced desperate straits in their early years, literally fighting wars for the survival of their respective states. Military conflicts shaped elite thinking and hampered economic growth as both countries focused on their core security concerns at the expense of wealth creation and integration into international society. In both cases, the leadership in the 1960s decided that a military-first approach was the only way to protect their states against their perceived threats.

A key difference has been that in Burma/Myanmar, the military threats were primarily internal (though with foreign backing, often) and diverse. This meant that over time, the uprisings and rebellions threatening to destroy the state could be won. In North Korea, the threat is external: it is a hostile superpower backing a separate Korean state that claims the right to govern the entire Korean peninsula. In this article, I do not attempt to compare these types of threats as such; rather, I focus on the fact that both were existential challenges to young states. Regardless, both countries committed to a long-term military response to these threats.


In Burma, within months of independence, a coalition government was facing the utter collapse of the country: there was a communist insurgency, a series of ethnic uprisings, and then Chinese nationalist incursions all within the first two years. The Tatmadaw (Burma/Myanmar's military) was not an early favorite; in fact, it "could barely be distinguished from the dizzying array of other quasi-state and private armies circulating throughout the country" (Callahan 2003, 114-115). The chaos of this period "left physical and psychological scars from which Burma has never recovered" (Smith 1991, 119).

The early independence government was a coalition. Leftists were a big part of that coalition, with two successive factions of Communists soon leaving to fight the government. One group left urban politics for the jungle in March 1946. The other faction was kicked out later in the year but continued to organize strikes and opposition to the government until March 1948, when they also went underground (Badgley 1974).

Ne Win--subsequently Burma's long-term dictator--took over the Tatmadaw in February 1949 and had fewer than 2,000 troops at his disposal. Not only were the Communists a threat, but he also had to worry about the Chinese Kuomintang, who fled in significant numbers to Burma in 1949 as they lost the Chinese civil war. They remained until 1953 (Trager 1969).

Also by 1949 the Karen minority had rebelled. Karen fighters reached Insein, a Rangoon suburb, but eventually fell back to and set up headquarters in Taungoo, a major town between Rangoon and Mandalay. They controlled a key stretch of railway and several towns, collecting taxes and controlling passage. The Tatmadaw was able to take Taungoo the next March, however, and forced the rebels out of the city and into the jungle (Linter 1999). The Tatmadaw and Karen continued fighting until most of the Karen rebels agreed to a cease-fire in 1964, which held for a decade. Fighting resumed in 1975.

The Muslim population in Arakan had grown restless too and following violence between police and a Muslim rally in April 1948, an organized rebellion began (Yegar 2002). They had some success through the mid-1950s but eventually lost steam and surrendered in 1961. A number of small Chin rebellions sprang up in the 1950s though "after the 1962 coup, they were largely subsumed by communist groups or driven out from the Chin hills to the Thai and Indian borders where they linked up with other ethnic nationalist fronts" (Smith 1994, 37). Another rebellion was launched by the Pa-O.

In the halls of power, the coalition government was paralyzed by factionalism. To General Ne Win and his colleagues, who had been fighting nonstop for over a decade, it came to seem as if the politicians were completely inept. Given the paralysis in government, with the (probably reluctant) consent of Prime Minister U Nu, the army took control of the country and formed a "caretaker government" in September 1958. The military stepped back two years later, U Nu won the elections, but oversaw his party return to a state of "indecision and procrastination" that had blighted previous administrations (Foley 2009, 151).

The military decided to step in again, though this time without the pretense of being a caretaker government. On March 2, 1962, a mostly bloodless coup took place. A revolutionary council was set up and would rule until 1974, when a new constitution was passed creating a national assembly and restoring some form of constitutional governance. The council began to pursue isolationism and foreign influence in schools was curtailed while "two American philanthropic organizations--the Ford and Asia Foundations ... were ordered to leave Burma within six months" (Holmes 1967, 689).

Meanwhile, armed groups who wanted to split the union in various ways continued to arise. Two smaller Shan organizations merged to form the Shan State Army in 1964. They launched a rebellion following the Revolutionary Council's declaration that the constitutional right to secede that was negotiated before independence was now null and void (Linter 1984, 416). Another ethnic group, the Palaung, in cooperation with Shan groups and in Shan State, took up arms on January 12, 1963, forming the Palaung National Force. Another small rebellion came from the Lahu minority, who rose up in arms in 1972 at the behest of a spiritual leader (Smith 2007). Arakan and Mon rebellions also developed in the 1970s; the latter was eventually crushed in 1977. (1)

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was in this period turning "into one of the most successful and best organized" of the various fighting forces (Smith 1991, 191). By 1968 the Communists were mostly nuisances according to one observer, not dangers to the state; the one group that was a danger was the KIA (Trager 1969, 107).

For someone first reading about the insurgencies that have bedeviled Burma since independence, this may seem like an impossibly complex web of conflict. As soon as Burma was independent, the state faced threats almost literally from all sides. Some were very real existential threats, looking to take over the state. Others were threats that sought to dismember the union and slice away at the hegemony of the majority ethnic Bamar. Others had vague, amorphous goals but drained the state's resources away.

It was in this context that the military, which saw itself as the guardian of the very idea of an independent Burma, took power. They didn't trust the politicians nor the citizenry (Callahan, 2003, 208). In the military's view, only they could keep the country together from military and social forces seeking to tear it apart. Only they could prevent the chaos caused by venal politicians. In their minds, only they could create a successful, modern, disciplined Burma.

North Korea

In Korea, the key threat to the nascent government in Pyongyang was the nascent government in Seoul. From 1945 to 1950 the Koreas were in a state of tension with each other and also domestically as they consolidated power through purges and dislocations. The war from 1950 to 1953 left two shattered, scarred, and still un-unified states. South Korea's response (eventually) was to become an economic powerhouse and to gain relevance and security through its importance in the global economy. North Korea's response was to turn itself into a garrison state, one that any enemy would be wary of.

This began in earnest in the 1960s, when DPRK military spending shot up. By some accounts, military spending went from 2.6 percent of GDP per year to around 30 percent in just a few years as Kim Il-sung and Nikita Khrushchev's relationship deteriorated and Kim felt the Russians could not be trusted to protect Korea (Suh 1988). In a 1963 speech, Kim Il-sung said the buildup had the goal of "turning the whole country into a fortress and thus preventing our enemies from venturing to provoke us" (Buzo 1999, 68). The year before, the Korean Workers' Party had held a plenum that established four fundamental military policies: first, arming the entire population; adding training for existing soldiers; turning the whole country into a fortress; and modernizing the armed forces (Buzo 1999).

This meant sacrifices: the seven-year plan introduced in 1961 called for light manufacturing to be expanded and to supply more and better daily-life products. Despite successes in their previous multiyear plans, the ballooning military expenditures crippled the seven-year plan. It had to be extended to 1970, when at the next Workers' Party Congress Kim admitted that the country's quality of life had not improved as he had wanted.

A slogan of the time illustrates how hard it was to accomplish both economic growth and military expansion. The state called on every sector to "greatly increase its output," with "a Gun in One Hand and a Sickle and Hammer in the Other! (Foreign Languages Publishing House 2002, 180). How does one work effectively when trying to hold a sickle and a hammer in one hand?

In the end, "the Kimist ethos was a military ethos," writes Adrian Buzo. Its founders saw life as "an unremitting struggle, its world-view was one of near-victory, followed by the bitter humiliation of defeat amid catastrophic material destruction.... The Kimists reconstituted the DPRK as a militarist society under the leadership of former guerillas whose major objective was the reversal of the verdict of the Korean War and who made an astounding material commitment to military production to achieve this" (Buzo 1999, 58). Kim said in December 1954, "The future duty of our army is the liberation of the southern part of the peninsula. Therefore it won't do to impatiently rush in to liberating the south right now, tomorrow or the day after" (Jo 2015, 23).

The Kim worldview was shaped by war and guerilla struggle, but geopolitics and war in the 1960s also drove the decision to focus on the military. South Korea's politics must have seemed first an opportunity, then a threat. The opportunity was the weakness in leadership that followed Sungman Rhee's ouster in April 1960. After two ineffectual and short-lived presidencies, Park Chung-hee swept to power, creating a state better able to compete with North Korea. This threat needed to be matched.

Kim also noticed that in the early 1960s the United States was demonstrating a willingness to go to war in another divided Asian country, Vietnam. As Kim put it, "the American Imperialists are dragging South Vietnam into a blind abyss. Those bastards will not only stop there, but on the contrary are threatening to expand the war to Northern Vietnam." In his mind, the United States had a "plot to use Korea as a bridge to invade China or the USSR" (Kim 1969, 264). A mirror of Vietnam, the DPRK remained on the front line of a global struggle.

There was also a "threat from the rear" for North Korea. During the 1966-1969 peak of China's Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong simultaneously upended China's internal society while also straining relations with Vietnam and North Korea for not being revolutionary enough. This uncertainty with the DPRK's key ally posed a threat to the Kim regime (Schaefer 2009, 117).

Thus, while another all-out war was avoided, there was an intensification of Northern incursions and attacks on South Korea in the late 1960s. This is sometimes referred to as the second Korean War. In 1966, there were forty-two US and South Korean casualties along the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). In the first nine months of 1967, the number had jumped to perhaps 300 (Lerner 2010, 1). North Korean Special Forces were well trained, wreaked havoc, and "might have been the toughest opponents ever to face American soldiers" (Bolger 1991, 18). One estimate suggests the 1960s saw the most violations of the armistice--82 times, out of a total of 219 (or 37.44 percent) between 1953 and 2009 (Jo 2015, 30).

The intensity of the period was most profoundly expressed in January 1968, when Pyongyang launched two audacious military ventures against its enemies. The first was a commando raid on Seoul's presidential residence and office, thwarted just a few hundred meters from President Park Chung-hee. The second was the assault on and capture of the US naval spy ship, the Pueblo, which sparked a yearlong crisis while the crew was held captive.

Still, by the 1970s it was becoming clear that unification through war was a difficult proposition. Diplomatic conflict began to grow in importance, but Pyongyang came to explore alternative strategies of violence in its conflict with the South. On October 9, 1983, during the visit of a high-level South Korean delegation, North Korean special agents detonated a bomb in the Aung San Martyr's Mausoleum in Rangoon. The explosion killed seventeen senior South Korean officials, including four cabinet ministers and two senior presidential secretaries. It missed President Chun Doohwan only because his motorcade had been delayed (Chapman 1983). Four Burmese were also killed. Burmese police and military quickly captured two of the agents and killed the other one as they tried to exfiltrate. Rangoon severed ties with Pyongyang.

The militarization of North Korea was in response to the threat of a rival regime backed by a hostile superpower. Throughout the late 1960s, Kim Il-sung hung onto a very real hope that the South Korean populace could be coaxed to overthrow his Southern rivals in Seoul, allowing him to either sweep down the peninsula militarily or politically absorb a new, revolutionary government in Seoul. In this way too it was imperative to have a potent fighting force, either to push out the Americans or to ensure political rivals in the South could not emerge during an uprising. "Fortress Korea" also ensured through the rules associated with social militarization that it was safe from an invasion and from the political agitation to which South Korea was vulnerable. This helped the state survive the fall of communism elsewhere. It also inspired its more assertive pursuit of nuclear weapons once the Cold War had ended.

Burma Solves Its Core Security Concern, North Korea Does Not

North Korea, long challenged by a wealthier competitor state and its superpower ally, found itself more vulnerable than ever with the fall of the Soviet Union. Pyongyang's key response to its vulnerable position was to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Any compromise on these issues is seen as a loss in Pyongyang's zero-sum thinking. Any gains it might see from a more normal relationship with the international community are overwhelmed by the sacrifice it perceives in giving up its weapons program.

By contrast, for the military in Myanmar, some form of democracy was and is considered possible now that no insurgency poses a viable threat to territorial integrity of the country. Myanmar's is not a mature democracy by any means, but they were willing to explore some sort of transition by the early 2000s. This was because in the 1990s and 2000s Myanmar made significant gains in addressing its core security threat of multiple rebellions that sought to either weaken or fracture the state. A series of military victories, several peace treaties, and the relocation of the country's capital city created a more secure state that could focus on democratization in order to alleviate its isolation and outlier status.

The process began before Myanmar was considered a pariah: a harsh "four cuts" doctrine was started in the 1960s and 1970s and continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s. This was meant to sever insurgents from their four key inputs: funding, food, intelligence, and recruits. It was hugely disruptive, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees and destroying thousands of communities. One group estimated that in Shan State alone, just between 1996 and 2000, 300,000 people were forcibly relocated (Rae 2007). Another group calculates that between 1996 and 2009 in Eastern Myanmar, some 3,506 villages were destroyed, abandoned, or forcibly relocated into communities under the army's control, displacing over 600,000 people (Falise 2010). It did, however, squeeze insurgent groups.

This provided the background for multiple victories and peace deals in the 1990s. The Karenni resistance in Karenni State (now called Kayah) was shattered in the mid-1990s. The Pa-O finally gave up in the 1990s as they became isolated. The Palaung also came to terms, as did the Mon, who had been under pressure after New Mon State Party headquarters near Three Pagodas Pass was overrun by government troops in 1990. This led to a peace treaty in June 1995 (South 2008). The Kachin also signed a peace deal in 1994, which held until 2011.

The biggest victory was undoubtedly over the Karen. The Tatmadaw exploited a split in the Karen leadership to encourage the defection in late 1994 of several hundred battle-hardened soldiers, who established the government-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Soon, the Karen National Union's (KNU) long-standing headquarters at Manerplaw fell to government troops and Burma's longest-running insurgency was over (South 2011, 8).

Perhaps most importantly, in April 1989 one of Asia's longest communist insurrections ended. At the Communist Party of Burma's headquarters in Panghsang an "all-out mutiny" occurred on April 16, causing the committed, aging ideologues to flee across the river to China, never to return. The rebel troops rapidly took control of caches of weapons and key buildings while symbolically smashing communist icons and burning texts (Linter and Black 2009, 17).

The next month a peace agreement was signed. The communist territories were divided into three areas controlled by the United Wa State Army, the Kokang Army (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army), and the Mongla Group (National Democratic Alliance Army).

In the end, a total of seventeen cease-fires were signed between 1989 and 1997. This allowed the Tatmadaw "greater control over the country by building up its forces, expanding to bases in previously contested borderlands, weakening the armed opposition, and isolating the pro-democracy movement" (Zaw Oo and Win Min 2007, xii, xi).

Myanmar's leaders thus gained the space they felt they needed to explore options for a controlled democratization. At the Central Institute of Civil Service, future bureaucrats started studying the workings of democracy and federalism at least as early as 2002. Kyaw Myat Khaing, a 2005 student, recalls that regarding political systems, "on the institute grounds there was free discussion, debate and brainstorming, but as soon as the students left campus and went to the tea shop, no talking" (author interview 2016). The authorities had deemed such discussions as too sensitive to be in the public domain.

An important step was also the 2003 proclamation of a seven-step process called the Road Map to Democracy (or more awkwardly, the Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy). This led to the 2008 constitution, a semidemocratic document that gave the military 25 percent of all seats in parliament and protects the constitution from amendment without military support. The military also retained control over three powerful ministries: border affairs, home affairs, and defense. It allowed the head of the armed forces to unilaterally call a state of emergency and suspend the constitution. Finally, a clause that was written with Aung San Suu Kyi in mind prevented citizens with foreign relatives from holding the office of president.

From a democratic perspective, the document is rife with flaws. But it also allowed for the 2010 and 2012 elections, which in turn allowed the 2015 electoral victory for the NLD. Democracy remains a work in progress in Myanmar, but progress has undeniably been made. The 2008 constitution contains some profoundly undemocratic elements and the military retains too great a role in politics. Laws limiting free speech and association remain on the books. Conflict remains in parts of the country. Still, Myanmar's citizens are enjoying hitherto only dreamed-of freedoms. US sanctions have been lifted and Myanmar's economy is relinking to the rest of the world. The country is no longer a pariah.

Other Factors

There are other factors that likely have contributed and do contribute to elite decisionmaking regarding reform and opening: broadly, these are legitimacy and ideology and systems of repression. In both cases, these factors are relatively (though not completely) constant. They can thus be said to have weaker bearing on Myanmar's transition and North Korea's lack thereof than the changes (or lack thereof) in each state's security situation.

The first factor is Burma/Myanmar's relative lack of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. Its military rulers engendered waning support from 1962 to 1988 by propagating a form of socialism that failed to generate wealth or development. It also failed to include ethnic minorities in the state-building project. The state then undermined what support it had with the Bamar majority through the traumatic violence meted out in 1988. Adhering to global norms on democracy and human rights may long have been seen as a way to boost the state's legitimacy, though it was considered too risky until the 2000s.

North Korea, by contrast, has a coherent ideology that is propagated with an intensity that is unparalleled in the modern world. Even with much of a contemporary North Korean's lived experience contradicting official narratives, the state ideology still appears to have a large effect on shaping opinions and building legitimacy. There are multiple surveys of defectors and North Koreans abroad that suggest as much. (2)

North Korea backs up this system with a much more robust system of surveillance and punishment for dissent. Credible estimates of prisoner numbers in North Korea suggest some 70,000 people arrested for "normal" crimes, but 80,000 to 120,000 people incarcerated as political prisoners (Tudor and Pearson 2015, 112).

Burma/Myanmar relied on a system targeting political prisoners to instill fear of challenging the status quo in specific ways. This meant "only" a few thousand people were usually behind bars for political crimes. A large, diverse country, with multiple porous borders, meant that Burma/Myanmar's capacity to control its people was always weaker than in North Korea. Pyongyang's far more comprehensive system means it simultaneously enjoys less internal pressure to change and would find it much more difficult to "unwind" its overlapping tools of repression.

Other potential factors include the personalities of the maximal leaders, shifting concerns at elite decisionmaking levels, and generational shifts in values and worldviews in elite social and business communities. In both countries, these potential factors are obscured to a large extent by system opacity. It is therefore difficult to make judgments on these issues with any certainty.

Lessons on North Korea from the Myanmar Transition

North Korea is unable to disaggregate and sequence policies that address its core security concern from the policies that have made it a pariah state. They are one and the same. Therefore, we are unlikely to see the kind of breakthroughs in the DPRK that we have seen in Myanmar.

As such, there remain three ways to approach North Korea's nuclear development: war, containment, or negotiation and diplomacy. The latter two are related and can be worked together to varying degrees.

War would be nearly unthinkable. Unlike in the mid-1990s, it is widely assumed now that the United States and its allies would win a war against North Korea, but the damage the Korean People's Army could inflict would be so horrific, the cost so high, that such a conflict must be avoided. It should also be noted--but rarely is--that war would be nearly unthinkable for Pyongyang as well. It would be unable to achieve the victories over their enemies that the Tatmadaw managed.

For the United States and its allies, containment and deterrence remain the only options, though there are a range of possible policies within those categories. Sanctions will play a role and may hamper Pyongyang's ability to develop its weapons programs as easily as it would like. They will continue to make economic life difficult for North Korea, though will not bring about the collapse of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as long as China believes its existence is preferable to its disappearance. Sanctions may not even be enough to bring North Korea back to the table, much less to give up its nuclear weapons.

Since 2012, if not earlier, North Korea has shown no willingness at all to discuss denuclearization. Its nuclear weapons appear to be completely off the table. At the same time, thus far, the United States has been unable to accept negotiations wherein a freeze, monitoring, and no new production are the best-case outcome. It would be a deflating admission of two decades of US failures and a tacit admission that the DPRK has become a nuclear power.

Perhaps after North Korea has credibly signaled that it can strike the US mainland with a nuclear weapon, Pyongyang will feel comfortable enough to negotiate its way to a better, more democratic, more globally integrated society and economy. However, even if Pyongyang feels it has managed its external security threats, the leadership will also have to feel assured that it can manage its own internal contradictions and the demands of its citizens, another huge challenge. This is a challenge that Myanmar's elites took on, though as noted, they did this in the context of weaker systems of ideology and repression.

As it is, Pyongyang has experimented with a more market-based economy, which changes how people earn a living and think about their roles in society (Abrahamian 2014). This will have a profound though as yet uncertain social impact over the long term. But for Pyongyang to take on a bolder social experiment as leaders did in Myanmar, a number of domestic, South Korean, and international variables will have to line up in a favorable way. Those conditions could take decades to emerge, if ever.


Andray Abrahamian is an honorary fellow at Australia's Macquarie University and is senior adviser to a nonprofit focused on training North Koreans in economic policy and entrepreneurship, Choson Exchange, where he previously served as executive director. He has been a lecturer at the University of Yangon and professor at Ulsan University, teaching international relations. He is a member of the US National Committee on North Korea. In 2016, he held visiting scholar positions at the University of Southern California and the Jeju Peace Research Institute. He is currently working on a book comparing Myanmar and North Korea. He can be reached at

(1.) See Arakan Liberation Party website at /?page_id=6.

(2.) See, for example, Jeyup S. Kwaak (2015) or Christopher Green (2014).


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Author:Abrahamian, Andray
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Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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