In the first of a two-part series, Prof. Antonio Fiori argues we should not expect Burmese-style democratization movement in North Korea in part due to the lack of any real civil society movement in the DPRK. Click here for part two, on the differences between “reference points” between the two countries
In the last two years Myanmar has embarked on a process of reform that has been considered the possible debut of a democratic transition. Even though it is probably exaggerated to talk about it as a country that is “on the road to democracy” – as recently declared by Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar has embraced a remarkably ambitious program of political, social, administrative and economic reform.
As often happens, Myanmar’s trajectory has become paradigmatic, an example that should be followed by all nations that have certain dictatorial characteristics. This was especially true for North Korea, a country that – in the minds of many commentators, journalists and specialists – could be considered “the next Myanmar.” Eminent politicians have shared in this impression, sincerely declaring that Myanmar’s recent change could be a source of inspiration for Pyongyang. In his May 2012 visit to Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak – the first South Korean leader to visit the Southeast Asian country since 1983, when an assassination attempt on then-leader Chun Doo-hwan put relations into deep freeze – held an extensive session with his counterpart, President Thein Sein. North Korea emerged frequently as an issue in their talks; Lee, in fact, was not only looking to Myanmar as a model for North Korea, but he pragmatically promised more South Korean assistance if Myanmar ended its military cooperation with Pyongyang.
The two “pariah” states have, in fact, shared a long and close diplomatic and military cooperation, reinforced by the ratification of a memorandum of understanding signed by Shwe Mann – Joint Chief of Staff of the Burmese Armed Forces – and Kim Jong Il, and North Korean supervision in the construction of Burmese military facilities. Lee’s suggestions seem to have gone partially unheard, given that last July the U.S. Department of the Treasury blacklisted Thein Htay, the Burmese Head of the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), for involvement in the illicit trade of North Korean arms. This, of course, as declared by the Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, specifically targets Thein Htay, not the government of Myanmar, and so would not necessarily mean that Myanmar’s military is not committed to reform.
Nonetheless, President Obama strongly reaffirmed the necessity of breaking this intimate flirtation between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang, and the intrinsic suggestion that North Korea should follow Myanmar’s “reformist” example, during his visit to Myanmar in November 2012. Obama, the first-ever sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, sent an explicit message to Kim Jong Un in his speech at Yangon University:
“And here in Yangon, I want to send a message across Asia: We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past. We need to look forward to the future. To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.”
The message conveyed by the two heads of state, and by the international community generally, is unmistakable: North Korea should look at Myanmar’s experience to emerge from its international isolation, and the consequent earnings would be considerable in terms of growing foreign investments (becoming a Western investors’ dream) and involvement in a wider international network. It must be highlighted, however, that too often politicians, commentators and even scholars tend to anachronistically link together situations that are scarcely comparable, as – in some pundits’ opinion – when Middle Eastern Arab Spring movements should have automatically brought about a substantial modification in North Korea’s political sphere.
COMMONALITIES AND DIFFERENCES
Myanmar and North Korea undoubtedly share some characteristics: both have a colonial legacy, both have been led by isolationist authoritarian regimes for much of their post-independence history, in both the military remains the dominant political institution, both are technically “failed states” economically despite being resource-rich, both have poor human rights records, both have been sanctioned by the international community (though for different reasons), both have nuclear weapons programs (even though North Korea’s is at a more advanced stage).
However, noteworthy differences – often ignored – should be taken into account. It goes without saying that there are many dimensions that could explain how Myanmar’s pathway is different in nature from North Korea’s, but the main differences take shape around two different dimensions, one external and one internal. For now, let us address the dimension of civil society.
There is not a shared definition of civil society, but it is generally accepted that it defines institutions and groupings outside of government. Therefore, autonomy from the government is the most distinctive feature of civil society. If we acknowledge that civil society organizations are important forces in the state-building process and may challenge the government, we immediately understand to what extent North Korea and Myanmar are different in this perspective.
Civil society in Myanmar has a long history, often insignificant in Westerners’ eyes because local organizations were self-sufficient and not looking for international support. There are a wide variety of groups and formal organizations, reflecting ethnic and cultural diversity. In the last two decades the growth of formal local organizations has been evident, especially because these groups were formed to fill the gaps created by declining government services. Following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the space for civil society further expanded, leaving these actors with the possibility of playing a pivotal role as relief providers.
The strategy these groups have adopted in their attitude towards the state are different: some prefer to work behind the curtain while others strongly engage in advocacy with the government, especially on social welfare issues.
In sum, in the course of the present transformation of the country, civil society is a changing but pivotal actor, with a long history that goes back to the pre-independence period of 1948. In particular, civil society in Burma has been heavily limited by authoritarian regimes initiated by Ne Win, but has never completely suspended its activities, as demonstrated by its exuberance in the post-Ne Win period. The future of Burmese civil society remains uncertain, but its participation seems undeniable.
In North Korea, on the other hand, the presence of a civil society seems highly disputable. Even though some groups exist, based on social strata and vocational categories, these serve as a transmission belt connecting the masses and the party rather than being autonomous from the state. This is confirmed by different methods of social control, all of which place severe constraints on social groups and their activities in North Korea, as the songbun system of citizen profiling. Also, these systems of social control are completed by ubiquitous government intelligence agencies like the Ministry of People’s Security or the State Security Department. These security organs permeate every sector of society and monitor the private and public life of North Korean citizens. It goes without saying that life-long indoctrination also deeply affects North Korean citizens’ psyches, attitudes and behavior: the capillary presence of the Party is also finalized in the obstruction of the development of revolutionary political activities.
Not to mention that recently in Myanmar the government has decided to relax the traditional ban imposed on the press and the Internet since, as reaffirmed by Tint Swe, head of the country’s censorship authority, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, “censorship was incompatible with democratic practices.” Since August 2012, in fact, pre-publication censorship of the country’s media has been abolished. Many laws still exist under which journalists can be punished for writing material which angers or offends the government, but this is still a huge improvement in the general situation. In addition, other recent developments in Myanmar – such as the right to publicly demonstrate (subject to notification), the establishment of a human rights commission and the enactment of labor legislation bringing about the certification of more than 500 basic labor organizations – are non-existent in North Korea.
In North Korea, in fact, control of the press and the Internet is almost total, and the existence of 2 million mobile phones – seen by many commentators as conducive to the relaxation of strong controls – is of little importance in this context. The government is extremely attentive and suspicious of these devices: they cannot access the Internet and can only make calls within the country, since international calls are blocked: the possession of illegal devices remains a very serious crime. The same fruition of the Internet is extremely limited: “normal” citizens do not have any access to the web.
In part two we will discuss the other factor, the external dimension of international politics, which hinders the DPRK’s progress toward democracy, particularly as compared to Myanmar’s.
Picture: Totaloutnow, Flickr Creative Commons