Burma and North Korea? No comparison

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com

Comparisons between North Korea and Burma (also known as Myanmar) over the years have suggested that the two nations share some of the same problems.

However, even in the worst periods of military dictatorship, Burma never bore any similarity to North Korea. The contrast extends from urban market places to fields and forests to inner sanctums of power.

On a visit to Burma from Korea, I discover a place that’s outlived its historic image of revolution and violence. One reads of clashes in remote Shan villages, but the bloodshed is largely over while streets and markets in Yangon, the historic capital, the largest port and center of commerce, give every impression of flourishing.

Street scene in Burma (Myanmar).
Street scene in Burma (Myanmar).

People swear, yes, that the old army-led regime will be history by the end of March, opening up an orderly succession led by the hero of the National League for Democracy, 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi. Ask if the army won’t again step in, and you hear, no, the victory of Suu Kyi’s party at the polls means the transition has to happen.

That understanding contrasts sadly with more depressing news from Korea, where the one-two punch of North Korea’s latest nuclear test and the launch of a satellite adds to pervasive pessimism about a happy conclusion to the never-ending North-South standoff.

The shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex snuffs out the dying embers of any flickering hope that the old Sunshine policy will rise again.

Considering how many billions of dollars North Korea is spending on its nuclear and missile programs, you can’t blame President Park Geun-Hye for not wanting to pump more than $150 million a year into Kaesong to keep 124 small South Korean factories operating there.

Still, you wonder if ongoing relationships between about 500 South Korean managers and technicians and 54,000 North Korean workers might someday have paid off. And you also wonder about the danger of the North-South standoff escalating to the point of armed conflict.

Such doubts seem to have evaporated in Yangon. At the depths of unrest, flood and famine, Burma never descended to the North Korean horrors of mass disease, starvation and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands. The streets of Yangon are crowded, shops are busy, and the media, once under strict control, give a sense of what’s going despite constraints.

In Pyongyang, the sight of taxis and traffic lights provides fodder for stories about “change” as if these were miracles of the renaissance of the Democratic People’s Republic. Never mind that the country still has billions to build nuclear warheads and long-range rockets while the leader, Kim Jong-Un, calls for ever more “working satellites” soaring to “higher targets.” No one doubts that the same rockets which put satellites into orbit could also fulfill his dream of a long-range missile capable of reaching targets 10,000 kilometers away with a miniaturized warhead fixed to its nose cone.

It’s inconceivable, of course, that any political force remotely like that of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy could survive for a moment in North Korea. She’s suffered through a total of 15 years of house arrest, confined to her four-acre estate in one of Yangon’s wealthiest districts, down the road from the newly opened American embassy. She’s endured the loss of her British husband, who died of cancer in England nearly 16 years ago, and she sees their two sons only during their infrequent visits to Burma. She has always known that if she leaves her country, she might not be able to return, but her travail does not begin to compare with the executions in North Korea of those who express the slightest disagreement with Kim Jong-Un.

In Burma, the issue now revolves around a possible compromise between Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the military-supported forces that she trounced at the polls. Barred from taking over the government by a spurious constitutional amendment that disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse, she will lead her party while working with old foes on reconciliation. The same familiar cronies, in cahoots with military allies, will dominate the economy.

When I stopped by the imposing steel-gated front entrance to her estate, a guard told me she was “in parliament” in Naypyidaw, the capital that the military government ten years ago built more than 300 kilometers to the north to be safe from marauding protesters. Above the gates looms a picture of Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, whose reward for talking the British into granting independence was his assassination.

Political violence remains a danger in Burma. It’s refreshing, though, to visit a country that’s getting over dictatorship and destructive economic policies ― and stands on the brink of still more change. That’s in stark contrast to the dark drama of Korea whose tragic outcome is all too easy to imagine.

Donald Kirk, based in Seoul and Washington, recently visited Burma. He’s covered war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.

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