Myanmar and North Korea: compared and contrasted
Based on extensive experience in both nations, Andray Abrahamian has written a book on why Myanmar came out of the cold and why North Korea did not
As recently as 2010, North Korea and Myanmar were the two pariah states at opposite ends of Asia. But while North Korea remains dark and isolated, Myanmar has advanced – despite the storm of international criticism it is now facing over the Rohingya – into the light of the international community.
One man who has worked in and studied both nations is Anglo-American Andray Abrahamian, the author of “North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths” (McFarland, 2018). The 40-year-old, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, first developed an interest in North Korea.
“I got the impression that media coverage of North Korea was not the whole story and was also interested in how media works in wartime, about enemy states, so thought I would interrogate that for a PhD,” he said.
While studying for a PhD at Ulsan University in South Korea, he by chance met Geoff See, the founder of Choson Exchange, an NGO which offers seminars on business to North Korean entrepreneurs in the country, and takes some for further training overseas, notably to Singapore and China. The meeting led to Abrahamian working for Choson Exchange for four years as executive director, during which time he visited the reclusive state 27 times.
In 2015, his wife was offered a job in Myanmar. Abrahamian decided to follow her. “I had been there once only, but had been paying attention as it really was Asia’s other pariah state,” he said. “I wanted to see what happens when a society transitions to a more open model.”
In Myanmar, he taught at Yangon University and consulted to companies and NGOs.
The two nations he has specialized in formerly had much in common. “I think when they were both really very isolated, they sort of found each other as willing or necessary partners,” said the author. “Both countries were struggling in the face of sanctions, both were overly reliant on China and looking for friends.”
While lush, tropical Burma sent rice to food-strapped North Korea, North Korea dispatched arms to Myanmar. “From Myanmar’s perspective, they wanted a diversity of suppliers instead of just the Chinese, Russians and Israelis.”
Also, North Korea added engineering muscle, helping to build Myanmar’s new capital, Naypyidaw, and offered military engineering expertise for Myanmar’s tunnel network.
Security threats: internal versus external
A key reason why Myanmar emerged, blinking, into the global light and North Korea did not, Abrahamiam reckons, is the differing nature of the security threats the regimes faced. In multi-cultural Myanmar, home to some 100 ethnic groups, that threat was internal but ultimately manageable. In homogenous North Korea, it was external and unmanageable.
“The key difference between the two is that both counties face an existential security crisis,” he said. “In Myanmar, there were ethnic armies and communist rebellions seeking to tear the country apart: They were very potent and did threaten to dismember the state.” Weapons of mass destruction were of little use in such combat, but counter insurgency efforts, did eventually, prevail for the junta.
“They took care of the insurgency and the fractures, largely in the 1990s, and then they turned to the issue of democracy and Aung Sang Suu Kyi and came up with a plan,” Abrahamian said
The threat facing ethnically homogeneous North Korea is on a different order of magnitude. Firstly, it faces a competing nation to its south with double the population and an economy that is perhaps 40 times larger. Secondly, the southern nation is allied with, and provides a potential invasion balcony for, the world’s biggest superpower – one that is, moreover, officially at war with North Korea, given that the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
“North Korea’s response to its security dilemma is nuclear weapons and that is the exact reason they are a pariah,” Abrahamian said. “They cannot disaggregate those issues.”
National icons: One in opposition, one in power
In each country, one person was to their differing destinies: In Myanmar, “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi; in the other, “The Young Marshal,” Kim Jong-un. Both hail from dynasties with immense national prestige. The former is the daughter of independence leader Aung San; the latter is the grandson of former guerrilla and state founder Kim Il-sung.
In Myanmar, once the internal security threat was handled, the junta could shift its attention. “The reason Myanmar was a pariah was because of Aung San Suu Kyi and the suppression of the democracy movement,” Abrahamian said. “The opposition was led by Suu Kyi and she became so iconic that the regime had to find a way to deal with her.”
While they hoped and tried to exile her – she refused to leave the country even when her British husband was dying, for fear that she would not be permitted to return – the junta could not disappear her. “She was so popular both internationally and domestically,” said Abrahamian. “It is hard to overestimate how much people loved her.”
Hence, for reasons of birth credentials, and popularity, Suu Kyi remained alive and, at least partly, visible. The junta, in short, had no choice but to deal with her and eventually allow her into the corridors of power.
In North Korea, the opposite situation prevails: It is the leader, not the regime opponent, who comes armed with the critical founding family credentials, creating a platform for ideological unity. This power should not be underestimated.
“The North Koreans have created an ideology and narrative that still kind of works, even if it not as united and controlled as it was 25 years ago,” Abrahamian said. “The basic story still works for the majority of people, and that is something they never really got in Myanmar.”
Moreover, overwhelming state control has, to a large extent, enabled the regime to insulate its country from the foreign gaze. “Being able to sneak in to a disaster zone and report is another difference,” said Abrahamian. “That is unimaginable in North Korea, but in Myanmar, that was possible.”
Given that Kim is the third member of his family to rule, extensive groundwork has been laid, entrenching him in power via suppressive mechanisms that are likely more extensive than in any other modern nation. There is no opposition in North Korea – not at the policy level, nor at the district level; not on the streets, nor in the hills. Neither in China, South Korea or Russia is a guerrilla army massing on the frontier.
“It is hard to imagine an opposition figure emerging in North Korea, there is so much more ideological unity,” Abrahamian added. “Their apparatus of repression is so much more powerful and they are much more insulated from pressure for system change.”
Market economics and civil society
However, North Korea is not entirely trapped in a Cold War time warp, which so much reporting about the nation indicates. “I think there are pressures for change,” Abrahamian said. “You have a class of people who want stability, so that they can run businesses; they see the economic freedoms enjoyed in China.”
This class stems from the entrepreneurs who created the marketized economy that has made modern North Korea so self-sufficient and sanction-resistant. With the socialist state distribution system having imploded amid famine and the collapse of European communism in the mid-1990s, survival markets sprung up, trading food and medicine smuggled from China.
From these black markets, the jangmadang – the nationwide network of markets from which, most data indicate, the vast majority of North Koreans now source their daily needs – sprang. They now operate openly, albeit subject to state oversight.
Yet while Pyongyang grudgingly permitted the emergent marketization – it tried and failed to crack down in 2009, with currency reform, and in 2011, during the funeral period of Kim Jong-il. Both moves ended in failure – no civic society has appeared. “It is a country without a civic society, really,” Abrahamian said.
No so in Myanmar. “Myanmar was socialist from 1962-1988, then, after horrendous violence, they gave up on the socialist experiment to become a market economy, and civil society and political parties emerged,” he said. “They cracked down on politics pretty fast, but did allow civil society organizations.”
The early formats were in local schools, charities engaged in health, and private companies. This laid the basis for communications and networks, which would later find voice in political activism.
Rangoon, having recognized the failure of socialism, created a blueprint for political change and eventual democratization. “They took a decade preparing a pseudo-democracy,” Abrahamian said. “It was not a flash.” No such plan for alteration to regime structures is known in North Korea.
The resilient force of nationalism
But Abrahamian warns that the world should not necessarily anticipate sudden change or collapse, as has been endlessly – and fruitlessly – predicted in some circles since the early 1990s. Noting that China and Vietnam have overseen radical economic changes yet maintained party control, he sees North Korea today like Dengist China in 1974.
“I was in Beijing with a North Korean looking out over these towers and billboards and traffic, and he said, ‘20 years ago, nobody could have imagined that Beijing would be an international city’,” Abrahamian recalled. “Then he said, ‘In 20 years, Pyongyang will be like this.’ We think so much about the prospect for dramatic change or rebellion, but I think North Koreans just want a more prosperous version of their country.”
With a multi-ethnic background and dual nationality, Abrahamian views patriotism – and its more extreme manifestation, nationalism – from an outside perspective. What he sees surprises, depresses and shocks him.
“It is amazing how nationalism works – and I am thinking particularly about North Korea here – when people are so attached to their countries even through misgovernance and repression,” he said. “People walk around with a ton of dissonant ideas about themselves and their country: supporting and loving it, but in other ways frustrated and loathing it.”
Turning to Myanmar, the concept of ethnic nationalism – particularly now, with the tyranny of the majority aimed squarely at the despised Rohingya minority – remains equally powerful.
“It is amazing how race and the nation are still so potent. I had thought and hoped that would not be the case anymore,” Abrahamian said. “We think they wanted democracy, but were not prepared for how ethno-nationalist democracy could be – we did not even want to think that Aung Sang Suu Kyi would be an ethno-nationalist.”