Authors: Jonathan T Chow, Wheaton College, and Leif-Eric Easley, Ewha Womans University
Myanmar and North Korea were long known as Asia’s ‘pariah states’ — internationally sanctioned and ostracised for human rights violations, authoritarian repression and, in North Korea’s case, persistent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. But in 2011, Myanmar’s ruling junta surprised observers by making a strategic decision to reform and open, ushering in a quasi-civilian government. Meanwhile, North Korea pressed ahead with its nuclear and missile programs, hardening its pariah status.
Myanmar and North Korea rely heavily on China for trade, investment, diplomatic support and military assistance. But citizens in both countries express resentment about China’s growing economic and political influence. In Myanmar, concerns centre on China’s ties to ethnic armed groups fighting against the central government, and the environmental and social effects of Chinese-led infrastructure projects like the Myitsone Dam. Consequently, Myanmar used liberalising reforms to signal its desire to adhere to international norms and attract new diplomatic partners.
North Korea relies even more heavily on China and resents Beijing’s endorsement of UN sanctions against its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Yet North Korea eschewed reform and opening, instead doubling down on its pariah status by racing to advance its nuclear and missile programs. There are three factors behind Myanmar and North Korea’s different approaches to mitigating reliance on China.
First, North Korea and junta-era Myanmar differed in leaders’ ability to protect themselves from retaliation in the event of giving up control. Myanmar’s military leaders could allow liberalising reforms and relinquish day-to-day governing responsibilities while retaining arms and the ability to usurp power. Myanmar’s new constitution grants the military broad autonomy from the civilian government and sweeping emergency powers, as well as immunity from prosecution for actions committed under the junta.
By contrast, North Korea’s ruling Kim family exercises control through a pervasive political ideology centred on ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un. He employs brutal repression as well as the dispensing of luxury items and social privileges to co-opt North Korean elites. There is little room for the Kim family to pursue liberalisation if reforms are expected to undermine the regime’s legitimacy and allow the emergence of rival factions that might seek to replace the regime.
Second, Myanmar and North Korea differ in their ability to demonstrate to potential diplomatic partners that liberalising reforms are genuine and not merely tactical. Such signals are important because new partners are concerned about the reputational risks of engaging a pariah state. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi served as a credible signaller of the junta’s reformist intentions. Before her image was tarnished by human rights violations during her tenure in government under a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the junta’s reforms was vital in persuading Washington to reduce sanctions.
North Korea, by contrast, lacks credible signallers as the regime so thoroughly suppresses political opposition. Defectors typically keep a low profile to avoid retaliation against their families still living in North Korea, while those who are vocal tend to be very critical of the regime. This makes it difficult for North Korea to convey genuine intentions of political reform. Pyongyang’s propaganda also maintains that its efforts at engagement are not appreciated by the international community.
Third, Myanmar and North Korea differ in how diplomatic engagement with new partners relates to national security. Myanmar’s leaders perceived their chief security threat to be the numerous ethnic armed groups within the country. Before pursuing reforms, the junta reached ceasefires with a majority of these groups, allowing it to concentrate forces on the remaining holdouts. By the time reforms were underway, diplomatic engagement did not entail a significant security risk to Myanmar’s ruling regime.
But North Korea faces a dilemma wherein diplomatic diversification requires putting its claimed nuclear deterrent on the negotiating table. The Kim regime has long pursued nuclear weapons to protect against invasion and overthrow. While such capabilities somewhat reduce Pyongyang’s security reliance on Beijing, they are the major source of North Korea’s pariah status and increase its economic dependence on China. Potential economic partners like the United States, South Korea and Japan demand that North Korea take steps towards denuclearisation to earn sanctions relief. Unlike Myanmar, North Korea is caught between its security priorities and its desire to reduce reliance on China.
Overreliance on another country is not sufficient to trigger reform in pariah states. Regime type, the presence of credible signallers, and the relationship between security and diplomatic diversification all shape the costs and incentives that pariah states face in determining whether to liberalise and open up.
Pariah states want to pursue reforms from a position of strength, which may entail protections for leaders upon stepping down, mechanisms to seize back power or building a nuclear deterrent. Myanmar was able to attain a position that allowed it to launch reforms and begin reducing reliance on China. For the Kim regime, the price of shedding its pariah status and attracting new diplomatic partners appears too high to risk, meaning that North Korea will continue to depend heavily on China for the foreseeable future.
Jonathan T Chow is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts.
Leif-Eric Easley is Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, Seoul.
This article is based on their recent study, ‘Renegotiating pariah state partnerships: Why Myanmar and North Korea respond differently to Chinese influence’, published in Contemporary Security Policy.