In November 2012, President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar to applaud and support the former military state’s democratization process. Myanmar’s transition to democracy in March 2011 surprised the world—for the previous five decades, it was seen as a pariah state that wielded authoritarian rule, despite harsh economic sanctions and criticism from world leaders.
Though isolated from the international community, Myanmar had found an ally in North Korea, another obstinate, pariah state. Generally, Myanmar and North Korea have shared a good relationship. Prior to Myanmar’s transition to democracy, the two enjoyed full diplomatic, economic, and military relations. Embassies were established in both countries. As late as 2010, Myanmar was purchasing North Korean military equipment, including small arms, missile components, and nuclear technology. Granted, the Burma-DPRK partnership has hit low points when North Korea killed four Burmese officials during an attempt to assassinate the South Korean President in 1983. But the two have always managed to restore ties through economic and military exchanges.
However, since Myanmar announced its transition to democracy, it has taken measures to end relations with North Korea. After Former President Lee Myung-bak visited Myanmar in May 2012, Myanmar said it would cease its weapons exchange program with Pyongyang. In October 2012, Burmese President Thein Sein publicly announced it was willing to cut Burma-DPRK military ties. In November 2012, Myanmar agreed to sign a nuclear agreement that would allow increased scrutiny by UN nuclear inspectors, effectively ending North Korean shipments of nuclear materials to Myanmar.
Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea has continued to erode at a rapid pace. If Yangon is to sever ties completely with Pyongyang, then North Korea will be even further isolated. This could potentially have large implications for North Korea, economically and morale-wise. Will this encourage Pyongyang to take the same path as its former ally?
Furthermore, Myanmar is evidence that a former military state can open up, contrary to expectations. Though it was a brutal military state that committed atrocious human rights violations for over fifty years, it is now making rapid strides towards democracy. Given their similar pasts as autocratic military regimes, perhaps Myanmar can counsel North Korea on how to open up and establish civilian rule. Hopefully North Korea will follow in Myanmar’s footsteps.