“North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths” by Andray Abrahamian


The traditional nursery rhyme goes:


Two little Soldier boys playing with a gun; One shot the other and then there was One. One little Soldier boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.


Pyongyang and Naypyidaw were, Andray Abrahamian claims, the last of the pariah states. Yet although Iraq from Bush’s “axis of evil” triad was destroyed in 2003, Iran was only seemingly tamed—US President Donald Trump disagrees—in 2015 with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action forestalling its attempt to match Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Equally, while Libya’s pretensions for promotion went with disarmament, in 2003 Syria was available until its intermeshed civil wars blossomed in 2011.

Nevertheless Myanmar and the DPRK shared sufficient similarities—and differences—that there are useful lessons to be learnt.

Both were driven reluctantly towards the 20th century by occupation: North Korea by Japan and Burma by the British. Both spent time as wards of Beijing and they shared an enthusiasm for autarky whether Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party or the the Kims’ Juche. They endured their numerologists: the search for the lucky nine saw the spread of 45 and 90 kyat notes in Burma; rather more dysfunctional was Pyongyang’s 2.16 won to the dollar exchange rate celebrating Kim Jong Il’s 16 February birthday, making tourists wish he’d been born at the tail end of the year.

In both, after the early 1960s in Pyongyang’s case, the military was favored over the economy. Despite Abrahamian’s claims to the contrary, they were both battling separatism. The difference was one was internal and the second external. In Burma, the CIA supported the Chinese Nationalist KMT’s incursions into China until the sixties, while Pyongyang fought a second “low-intensity” war between 1966 and 1969: while North Korea MiG pilots flew combat missions against the Americans in Vietnam, armed guerrillas took the fight to Seoul in the South. In Myanmar, they won. In North Korea, they didn’t and drifted into national solipsism.

The two were deeply unloved regimes, yet for very different reasons. Korea a remnant of the Cold War after the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Empire starting in 1989 and driven towards the development of a nuclear deterrent to counter the threat of regime change. This touched a nerve with Washington. Nuclear proliferation was tolerated if it was Israel, India or Pakistan, but for Pyongyang it was taboo.

Myanmar had been a neglected dictatorship for thirty years and more when its generals decided in the wake of massive civil disturbances in 1988 to hold multi-party elections two years later, the people voted the wrong way. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80% of the seats. That was not part of the plan. Amidst riots, deaths and international condemnation the military’s onomatopoeic SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) took charge. They failed to take care of Aung San Suu Kyi, who as daughter of Myanmar’s martyred version of Kim Il Sung, was immune from final solutions, and waited them out under house arrest for twenty years and who in doing so became the global poster girl for stolen democracy.

Natural catastrophes visited both. The floods and drought of 1995-6 gave North Korea between one and three million dead from famine in slow motion death over four or five years. Hurricane Nargis killed 140,000 in the same number of days. The first failed to shake the regime, the second was the harbinger of change. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed out and partial democracy was restored. The NLD was given a hand on the levers of power. The Parliament in Naypyidaw was hamstrung by a blocking minority of military appointees and the defense and law and order portfolios in Government reserved for non-elected politicians. Yet while a weakened military benefited the Country’s core it released its demons on the margins. Can one imagine the world’s response if the genocidal expulsion of over 600,000 Rohingya had its equivalent in North Korea! Divergent Paths says Myanmar—unlike Pyongyang—is not a threat to its neighbors. Tell that to Bangladesh.


North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths, Andray Abrahamian (McFarland, February 2018)
North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths, Andray Abrahamian (McFarland, February 2018)

The two countries had much in common, but in 1983 they fell out over murder most foul. On 3 October, three North Korean agents set off a bomb aimed at assassinating South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. They missed. He was late. Nevertheless they killed four Burmese and 17 senior South Koreans, including four cabinet ministers and two senior presidential secretaries. Relations were severed with Pyongyang. They stayed that way until April 2007 when they were suddenly restored with Than Shwe’s growing interest in nuclear weapons. Internal opposition within the military quickly killed his interest as they tried to cope with the Saffron Revolution later the same year.

Andray Abrahamian has done a valuable service in comparing and contrasting the two regimes. There are more differences than similarities which makes some of the connections rather tenuous.

Clearly much of North Korea and Myanmar was written in the afterglow of partial democratization in the latter and implacable US and Western hostility towards the former. In nine months this has been turned on its head. President Obama visited Myanmar twice in his Presidency and pledged to lift all sanctions. Now President Trump in the wake of a Summit in Singapore, that was more spectacle than substance, may be off to Pyongyang.

It’s not impossible that sanctions will be being imposed in Myanmar as they are being lifted on Pyongyang. On the other hand in six months the world might be the right way up again.

Glyn Ford is a former Euro-MP and author of North Korea on the Brink. His Talking to North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff was published by Pluto in September.