Obama’s message for North Korea in visiting Burma: Let’s make up

November 19, 2012

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade. (Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, President Obama visited a medium-sized Asian country known for its international isolation, brutal military dictatorship and flirtations with nuclear weapons. If that sounds familiar, you are not alone in seeing some parallels between the reforming autocracy of Burma (also known as Myanmar; more on that distinction here), which Obama became the first-ever sitting U.S. president to visit, and North Korea.

Before the trip, I wrote that Obama's bracingly fast-paced detente with Burma sends the message to other rogue states that the Obama administration is willing to let bygones be bygones, to work with ruling regimes instead of pushing its leaders into international criminal courts, and to even reward regimes that take positive steps. I assumed such a message would be implicit, but it turns out to have been quite explicit. Here's Obama addressing Pyongyang directly in his speech today at Yangon University in Burma (emphasis mine):

And here in Rangoon, 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.

In 2012, we don’t need to cling to the divisions of East, West and North and South. We welcome the peaceful rise of China, your neighbor to the North; and India, your neighbor to the West. The United Nations -- the United States will work with any nation, large or small, that will contribute to a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous, and more just and more free. And the United States will be a friend to any nation that respects the rights of its citizens and the responsibilities of international law.

The message is clear: Hey North Korea, see Burma emerging from international isolation to growing foreign investment, declining foreign military threats and perhaps even improving political stability? This could be you, if you would only, for example, “demonstrate a seriousness of purpose” on winding down the nuclear weapons program, as National Security Adviser Tom Donilon put it in a speech last week.

Still, North Korea's isolation and dictatorship are more deeply entrenched than Burma's, and the path to normalization would likely be longer and more difficult. There is no known North Korean Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist whom the Obama administration is closely embracing to help encourage reforms from the bottom-up. There are no known popular North Korean movements for democracy, like the monk-led Burmese protests of 2007. And, maybe most problematically, North Korea's ideology and its political system rely on anti-Americanism and international isolation in a way that Burma's don't. North Korea, for better or worse, appears to have won support from a significant number of its own people, and it's difficult to imagine leader Kim Jong Un so dramatically reversing the ideological basis for that support. In Pyongyang's telling, its fatherly guidance is necessary for the continued success of the Korean people, and to keep the evil imperialist Americans at bay.

The regime seems to be working assiduously to protest another ideological pillar of its rule: we are rich and everyone else is very poor. The country's censorship system, one of the world's most effective (computers are illegal to own privately without rare official permission and must be registered as if they were hunting rifles), keeps many North Koreans from learning about the remarkable prosperity of Koreans in the south, who in the official telling are impoverished and brain-washed. Would Kim be willing to reach a public detente with the United States, this willingly toppling the anti-American pillar of its rule?

Whereas Burma was squeezed by international sanctions and increasingly reliant on China in a way that appeared to make its leaders unhappy, North Korea has proven quite adept at getting what it wants from Beijing without giving much in return, and its political system could remain stable and unchanged for "decades," according to a recent study from the International Crisis Group. So North Korea might not necessarily have the same willingness to reform that has informed Burma's opening.

For these reasons, it's difficult to see how North Korea might follow the same path as Burma to opening, reform, and friendship with the United States. But the strongest case for Obama's offer to Pyongyang might not be that it's likely to work, but that no one seems to have any better ideas.

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Max Fisher · November 19, 2012