A pretty accurate barometer for a country’s international standing is probably how many foreign brands it hosts. I’m not equating material benchmarks with progress, but most Fortune 500 companies will do business in even the most ramshackle and violent of countries. So, it is telling that North Korea (DPRK) and Myanmar belong to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs: Along with Cuba, they are the only countries in which a can of Coke can only be found on the black market.
Club membership is about to dwindle, though. Last week Coca-Cola announced that it will begin exploiting Myanmar’s markets for the first time in sixty years.
And Coca-Cola isn’t alone. Western companies are returning en masse to the country as sanctions in place for nearly half a century are relaxed. Why? In November 2010, Myanmar floored the global community by announcing that it would be holding elections. At first, the West’s response was an apathetic shrug, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the voice of Myanmar’s opposition, declined to participate. Most, of course, expected the usual bromides about a “democracy” that was really puppeteered by military thugs.
Thein Sein, a military man, was ultimately elected. And amazingly, Sein has begun to implement reforms in a country that has been in political stasis for years. Suu Kyi soon entered her National League for Democracy (NLD) in elections and deigned to meet with Thein Sein. In elections deemed by international observers as remarkably free, Suu Kyi and 43 other NLD members were elected to parliament out of the 45 contested seats. Of course, the military junta still controls over 80 percent of the parliament’s 664 seats, but this is a step in the right direction. The progress made is fragile — sectarian violence in the country’s north-west last week prompted the government to declare martial law — but promising.
Lacking the Joy of Cola
Change focus to Asia’s other pariah, North Korea. The DPRK’s shadowy regime is lacking in friends, especially with Myanmar’s recent Western detente. Indeed, Myanmar’s spontaneous about-face has elicited comparisons to the DPRK — maybe the same can happen, some say. Last week, Hillary Clinton urged Kim Jong-un, the rotund 20-something son of the late “Dear Leader,” to take a different course.
The optimism is touching, but the comparisons to the DPRK are superficial. Yes, both countries have been led by suffocating, autocratic regimes. And, yes, both countries’ citizens live in total penury. But it’s hard to reel off many more similarities.
For one, Myanmar has tasted the fruits of international trade, while the DPRK has not. Local investment in Myanmar has always eclipsed that of the DPRK’s. China has long since been Myanmar’s greatest patron, but has also proved to be a fickle partner. For example, a recently proposed, Chinese subsidized hydroelectric project was found to divert 90 percent of the generated power to China. In order to escape the orbit of its giant neighbor and attract coveted Western investment, Myanmar must loosen its autocracy, as it appears to be doing.
Conversely, most countries have eschewed doing business with the DPRK. And it is important not to confuse investment with aid. China operates at a substantial loss within North Korea, in exchange for port and military base access. And American and South Korean food aid was stopped following the DPRK’s missile tests of the last few years. In short, the DPRK’s leadership has no doubt convinced itself that it can remain in power with continued Chinese support, at the expense of a few million starving citizens.
The key difference, however, has been the DPRK’s ability to totally stifle political dissent. Myanmar was briefly democratic from 1948 to 1962 and has long since had a vocal opposition. But the reason you haven’t heard of a North Korean opposition leader is because there isn’t one. North Korea has been resolutely totalitarian for over half a century. Its leaders are deified while the outside world is demonized. Political opponents are shipped off to prison camps redolent of the USSR’s infamous gulag archipelago. Those deemed a threat are imprisoned along with three-generations of their family. The camps hold an estimated 200,000 out of a total population of only 23 million. And those that aren’t being worked to death in the camps are starving. Yet international sanctions endure.
If a Myanmar-style loosening is ever to occur in North Korea, the world needs to rethink its obtuse sanctions regimen. The Soviet Union didn’t relax its grip because its people were starving, and neither did Myanmar. Change happened because the countries’ people recognized that they were starving and opposition voices constantly reminded them of their plight. Change also happened because their leaders realized what was at stake. China will continue to provide the capital needed to keep the Kim regime afloat. Sure, the regime may one day implode, but China will make one hell of an effort to keep its north eastern border from becoming unstable.
The United States and friends have doggedly insisted that sanctions will remain in place until the DPRK halts its nuclear proliferation. Just like Iran, however, the threat of continued nuclear proliferation is the single greatest bargaining chip North Korea possesses. What’s more, maybe if the Kim regime was engaged by the West on anything other than its nuclear program, it might prove more malleable. Aside from a prohibitively expensive war that Washington does not have the will to bankroll, it is unlikely genuine reform will grace the Korean Peninsula anytime soon.
It is the global community that needs to learn from Myanmar. Rather than attempting to wait out the gluttons of privilege, international sanctions ought to be relaxed to let the North Korean people eat and allow for some much needed foreign dollars to enter the country. And, maybe, with a little time, and a little help, North Koreans can have a Coke too.