Will North Korea Become Another Myanmar?


Interestingly, an analogy is being drawn between Myanmar and future North Korea in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s regime. Contrary to some pessimistic prediction the succession in North Korea has so far been smooth. There is speculation that for the sake of survival the youngest Kim now at the helm of affairs may opt for America opening in the fashion Myanmar has done.

Myanmar, which used to be called as the North Korea of Southeast Asia until recently, reveals a lot of similarities with North Korea. Despite plentiful riches Myanmar has lagged behind many of her ASEAN partners due to long-standing international sanctions. The country has faced growing isolation from the global community particularly the west for despicable human records and disrespect for democratic norms and principles.

But things have U-turned since the government in Myanmar launched a limited but unmistakable series of political reforms from November 2010. The foremost sign of such reforms is the release of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and some other political prisoners. The process of political transformation has been rewarded by the Obama administration in restoring full diplomatic ties with Myanmar. It reflects American confidence in Myanmar’s commitment to political freedom.

Following full resumption of diplomatic relations by the U.S., Norway and European Union members have signaled their willingness to do business with Myanmar. Possibly, more investment will flow to the country from these countries in the near future.

Against the background of such changes in Myanmar where parliamentary elections are scheduled for coming April and in which encouragingly Aung San Suu Kyi has shown her intention of participating, can Kim Young-Un in Pyongyang see some lessons for his impoverished country.

North Korea has been a pariah country owing to its political repression and more significantly its maturation of nuclear weapons capabilities demonstrated in the successful nuclear detonations in 2006 and 2009. Denuclearization in the Korean peninsula is no doubt a cherished goal of the global community, however, North Korea’s honest implementation of agreed commitments to dismantle nuclear weapons program is a sine qua non.

The Six-Party Process (Talks) initiated for years to persuade the leadership in Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons by offering economic incentives in return have not yielded any concrete progress. China’s leadership of the process involving the U.S., Russia, Japan and the two Koreas notwithstanding, denuclearization drive in the peninsula has stalemated. Worryingly, the disarmament talks have remained deadlocked since 2009.

In this context Scott A. Snyder asks if North Korea is ready for talks under the youngest Kim. He believes that as Kim is presently busy consolidating power he may be inclined to wait to see if more favorable government in Seoul is coming to power in 2012, where both parliamentary as well as presidential elections are slated for this year. Inter-Korean relations have been marred by visible tensions during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak in South Korea.

Conforming to the views of Scott A. Snyder North Korea’s neighbors South Korea and Japan have not found the country enthusiastic to restart talks on the issue of dismantlement of nuclear weapons. It seems that North Korea’s policy of dividing the U.S. and South Korea will not be acceptable to them. The trilateral meeting between the U.S., South Korea and Japan held in Washington DC on January 17, 2012 underscores this point.

The Joint Communiqué issued after that meeting has emphasized that “the path was open” for North Korea to resume the suspended Six-Party Talks on disarmament. Moreover, all three participants of the trilateral meeting have reaffirmed commitment to September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of Six-Party Talks, which highlights the core goal of the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.

Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist through his new book argues that North Korea’s survival is not possible without instituting enormous economic reforms. To him the improvement of Inter-Korea relations is crucial to make the denuclearization dialogue a success.

North Korea inherits a standing army of one million soldiers, which is large in terms of its population. Additionally, the country has now become nuclear-armed giving it extra power to blackmail the negotiating partners. Both China and America, which keep troops in North Korea’s northern and southern flanks have been trying to persuade the country to give up the nuclear weapons.

Ironically, North Korean leadership may become be less prepared to abandon such weapons against the backdrop of recent regime fall in Libya. UN-sanctioned western-led intervention has killed Colonel Qaddafi who had forsaken nuclear weapons development to improve relations with the west.

As articulated by Daniel M. Kliman in his recent commentary carried by Foreign Policy, China looks eager to see the present leader in North Korea revitalize the country’s economy. China’s objective has been to have an economically viable subservient country on the northern half of the Korean peninsula for the foreseeable future.

Undisputedly, China exercises enormous influence on North Korea. As a poor developing country in the neighborhood North Korea has become one of the largest beneficiaries receiving aid both in cash and kind from China. Any serious problem in North Korea leading to destabilization in the Korean peninsula will likely impact on China significantly and China reasonably remains effortful to avoid any possible influx of North Korean refugees into the country.

The introduction of suitable economic reforms in North Korea may be of interest not only for China as its next door neighbor but also for the U.S. which has still not been able to normalize relations with the country. Encouraging North Korea institute appropriate economic reforms and provide incentives to persuade it come to the Six-Party Talks will benefit Japan and South Korea as both of them may take advantage of transformed North Korea in future.

However, under the present circumstances of transition whether North Korea will make changes in sync with Myanmar is an open question but positive signals from the U.S., South Korea and Japan may prove helpful in this regard.

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