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.