It's not ridiculous to think that North Korea could take a page from Myanmar and make a shocking U-turn toward democracy.
For more than two decades, Myanmar was a pariah state ruled by military generals that suppressed political dissent, straitjacketed the media, persecuted ethnic minorities, and -- despite resource riches -- failed to improve its people's living standards. The United States continuously sanctioned Myanmar and subjected it to regular rhetorical whippings in Congress. It was, for want of a better parallel, the North Korea of Southeast Asia. But the transformation of the past few months has been nothing short of remarkable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit late last year underscored the changes within Myanmar, and on Jan. 13, the United States restored full diplomatic ties with the country after it made good on its pledge to release a significant number of political prisoners and signed a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels. America's breakthrough with Myanmar remains fragile; the government will have to meet other benchmarks such as abiding by the results of April's parliamentary by-election. Still, this thaw raises the question: Could it ever happen in North Korea?
The conventional wisdom is that North Korea will at best muddle through its current leadership transition or at worst implode; either way, it will continue to treat the United States as enemy No. 1. If the latest Kim to rein in Pyongyang manages to consolidate power, though, he may take a page from Myanmar's playbook and pursue an American opening. This choice may become more and more plausible as the regime's economic dependence on China becomes uncomfortably high.
At the moment, the world is rightly focused on whether North Korea's 20-something leader, Kim Jong Un, can hold the country together. While his father spent decades being groomed for leadership, the youngest Kim was elevated almost overnight; his ability to command loyalty among the generals and cadres that constitute North Korea's elite remains unknown. The combination of an internal power struggle and popular discontent could cause a collapse, triggering massive refugee outflows, the proliferation of nuclear material, and a unified but unstable Korean Peninsula.
North Korea could just as easily survive. Predictions of its demise, though regularly made, have routinely underestimated the regime's capacity to endure despite imposing terrible economic hardships on its people. During the famine of the 1990s, in which several million North Koreans may have perished, the regime channeled food and other goods to the military and party elites, guaranteeing their loyalty. And to buy some time while Kim consolidates his rule, it's likely that Pyongyang will continue to provoke Washington with belligerent rhetoric, missile tests, and possibly more lethal forms of brinkmanship. Once secure internally, however, Pyongyang could depart from the path of confrontation and seek to normalize relations with the United States. To signal its desire for improved ties, North Korea could make limited changes internally -- the opening of an Associated Press news bureau in Pyongyang, announced just this week, is suggestive.
Myanmar, like North Korea an ally of China, has just charted this course. For two decades, U.S. policy treated Myanmar as a pariah state. The military junta's repression of popular protests, mistreatment of minority ethnic groups, and confinement of democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi led the United States to institute ever tighter sanctions. Beyond its miserable human rights record, Myanmar also posed a security risk. In a bid to procure missile technology, the military junta turned to North Korea for help; just last year, the U.S. Navy interdicted a shipment of missiles bound for Myanmar. And rumors about a nascent nuclear program occasionally surfaced.
Yet rather than continue its confrontation with the United States, Myanmar began to change course. Starting in November 2010, its government launched a limited -- but unmistakable -- series of political reforms, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and some political prisoners, shedding military uniforms for civilian garb, and curtailing media censorship. It also abandoned efforts to obtain missile technology after last year's thwarted attempt. And after Clinton's visit, Myanmar responded with a new wave of openings, including the release of 651 additional political prisoners and the signing of a cease-fire agreement with the ethnic Karen rebels.
These changes, which blindsided most outsiders, were above all motivated by concerns about Myanmar's ally -- China. Isolated from the world economy by long-term international sanctions, the government became ever more reliant on China for trade and investment. Reliance gradually blurred into an erosion of national independence as Chinese firms imported workers and came to dominate the country's energy and transportation infrastructure. At the same time, Beijing's growing focus on the Indian Ocean risked turning Myanmar into an extension of Chinese naval strategy. Looking to ease what had become an overbearing embrace, the government of Myanmar implemented the domestic reforms necessary for the United States to offer diplomatic normalization.
If North Korea survives former leader Kim Jong Il's passing, it will confront a similar dilemma. Already, Chinese companies have a substantial presence in the North. Chinese firms are involved in resource extraction and construction, and the Rason free trade zone has become a focus for Beijing, which reportedly sends regular senior-level delegations there. China's economic presence within North Korea will continue to expand, particularly if Kim Jong Un is willing to pursue market-oriented reforms in a more serious and sustained way than his father. While Kim's desire to undertake such reforms is uncertain, China's eagerness to see him revitalize North Korea's economy is not. Despite the leadership transition in Pyongyang, Beijing's objectives remain unchanged: to see an economically viable, subservient country on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula for the foreseeable future.
The new ruler of North Korea may ultimately face a stark choice: become an economic protectorate of China or build a less antagonistic relationship with the United States. For Pyongyang, normalizing ties with Washington is the gateway to improving relationships with other regional powers -- Japan and South Korea. Both of these U.S. allies could become major sources of trade and investment for North Korea and help counterbalance Chinese influence. Neither, however, will adopt a radically different approach toward Pyongyang unless Washington moves first.
North Korea's path toward better relations with the United States will be a difficult one. The Kim family's legitimacy remains bound up in defying American power, including through the continued possession of nuclear weapons; confronting Washington was never as central to the legitimacy of Myanmar's junta. Moreover, Pyongyang is far more repressive than Myanmar ever was. Whether North Korea can make the types of changes that Myanmar has implemented remains an open question. On the other hand, Pyongyang could portray some elements of a U.S. opening -- like a high-level visit -- as recognition of Kim's exalted status and diplomatic acumen. The boost to domestic legitimacy could offset the weakening of domestic control.
As it confronts a North Korea in transition, the United States should prepare for the worst while being careful not to overlook early indicators of a new direction for the regime. Rather than worry about Chinese investments in North Korea -- a factor it has little capacity to influence -- Washington should recognize the upside: Such investments may actually hasten a U.S. rapprochement with Pyongyang.