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.