Resentful Reliance: Why Myanmar and North Korea pursue different strategies to limit Chinese influence

In a recent article in Contemporary Security Policy, Jonathan T. Chow and Leif-Eric Easley explain why, despite comparable international pariah status and heavy dependence on China, Myanmar sought diplomatic diversification through reform and opening while North Korea doubled down on pariahdom by further developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Myanmar and North Korea were long known as Asia’s “pariah states,” internationally sanctioned and ostracized for human rights violations, authoritarian repression and, in the case of North Korea, persistent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. In 2011, however, Myanmar’s repressive ruling junta surprised many observers by making a strategic decision to reform and open, stepping aside from power and ushering in a quasi-civilian government. Meanwhile, North Korea has pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons program, hardening its pariah status.

With relatively few international partners willing to cooperate with them, Myanmar and North Korea relied heavily on China for trade, investment, diplomatic support, and military assistance. However, citizens in both countries objected to China’s growing economic and political influence. In Myanmar, concerns centered 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 liberalizing reforms to signal its willingness to adhere to international norms and attract new diplomatic partners.

North Korea relies even more heavily on China than Myanmar did, and resents Beijing’s willingness to endorse United Nations sanctions regarding its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Yet, North Korea eschewed reform and opening and instead doubled down on its pariah status by racing to advance its nuclear and missile programs before pursuing diplomatic engagement. Our research identifies three factors behind Myanmar and North Korea’s different approaches to mitigating pariahdom and reliance on China.

Not All Authoritarians are Alike

First, North Korea and junta-era Myanmar differed in how well their leaders could protect themselves from retaliation after giving up control. Myanmar’s military junta could allow liberalizing reforms and relinquish day-to-day governing responsibilities while retaining its 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.

In contrast, North Korea’s ruling Kim family exercises control through a pervasive political ideology centered on “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un. The leader employs brutal repression and the dispensing of luxury items and social privileges to co-opt North Korean elites. There is little room for the Kims to pursue liberalization if reforms would undermine the regime’s legitimizing mythology, reduce the Kims’ monopoly on favors, and allow the emergence of rival factions that might seek to replace the regime.

Reducing Risks of Partnership with a Pariah State

Second, Myanmar and North Korea differed in their ability to credibly signal to potential diplomatic partners that liberalizing reforms are genuine and not merely tactical. Such signals are important in mitigating the reputational risks that new partners might incur in engaging a pariah state.    

In Myanmar, Nobel Peace Laureate, long-time political prisoner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi served as a credible signaler of the junta’s reformist intentions. Before her image was tarnished by Myanmar’s human rights violations during her current tenure in government under a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the junta’s reforms was vital to persuading Washington to reduce sanctions. Her endorsement reduced the political risks that US leaders faced in pursuing engagement with a pariah state. Myanmar’s military leaders understood Aung San Suu Kyi’s crucial signaling role, giving them confidence that their reforms would yield a positive response from Washington.

North Korea, by contrast, lacks credible signalers. The regime so thoroughly suppresses political opposition that virtually none exists. 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 would make it more difficult for North Korea to demonstrate to other countries that any political reforms it adopts are genuine. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s propaganda maintains that its efforts at engagement are not recognized by the international community.

Weighing the Security Implications of Engagement

Third, Myanmar and North Korea differ in how diplomatic engagement with new partners relates to their security. Myanmar’s leaders perceived their chief security threat to emanate from the numerous ethnic armed groups around the country. Before pursuing reforms, the junta established a series of ceasefires with the majority of these groups, allowing it to concentrate force on the remaining holdouts. By the time reforms were underway, diplomatic engagement did not entail a significant security risk to Myanmar’s ruling regime.

On the other hand, 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 reliance on Beijing in terms of security, they are a major source of North Korea’s pariah status and hence increase economic dependence on China. Potential economic partners like the United States, South Korea and Japan demand that North Korea take steps toward denuclearization to earn sanctions relief, but the Kim regime believes that doing so would put its security at risk. Hence, unlike Myanmar, North Korea is caught between its security priorities and its desire to reduce reliance on China.

Escaping the Pariahdom Trap    

Our research demonstrates that overreliance on another country is not sufficient to trigger reform in pariah states. Regime type, the presence of credible signalers, and the relationship between security and diplomatic diversification all shape the costs and incentives that pariah state regimes face in determining whether or not to liberalize and open up.

Pariah states want to pursue reforms from a position of strength, whether that means ensuring protections for regime leaders after they step down, creating mechanisms to seize back power, or building a nuclear deterrent. Myanmar was able to attain a position from which to launch reforms and begin to reduce reliance on China. For the Kim regime, however, the price of shedding pariah status and attracting new diplomatic partners appears too high to risk. Hence, for the foreseeable future, North Korea will continue to depend heavily on China.

Jonathan T. Chow is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, USA; Leif-Eric Easley is an Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul, Korea. They recently published “Renegotiating pariah state partnerships: Why Myanmar and North Korea respond differently to Chinese influence,” Contemporary Security Policy, 40:4, 502-525, available here

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