[May 6th, 2019] Korea Policy Forum: “North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths”

On May 6th, 2019, GWIKS and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies co-sponsored Korea Policy Forum with Andray Abrahamian, 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at Stanford University, on “North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths.” Moderated by Professor Jisoo M. Kim, Director of the Institute for Korean Studies at GW, Dr. Abrahamian began by sharing with the audience of his experience of working in North Korea. During his work at Choson Exchange, he has lived in Beijing and traveled to North Korea numerous times. When his wife got a job in Myanmar, he began to question “what needs to happen when a country is trying to come in from a period of isolation and reintegrate with the global community.” His research on comparing Myanmar and North Korea has been produced into his recent book, North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths. Why has Myanmar transitioned successfully when North Korea could not?


Dr. Abrahamian explained that the reasons he decided to compare these two culturally different countries, with divergent histories, and different experiences of colonialism. Strategically they occupy similar positions for China at the heart of Asian landmass, as northeastern and southwestern buffer states. The people of both countries have suffered a long period of isolation and poverty by the choices made by their governments and external responses to their policies. Also, they are the only countries that almost completely sat out wealth creation project that stretch from Singapore to Japan that lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty. Some claim that Myanmar is still a basket case with ethnic cleansing and genocide still taking place. Dr. Abrahamian explained that while it is true, the current situation of Myanmar is in no comparison to that of North Korea. He argued that both countries, from their births, have faced existential security threat and only in the process of overcoming that threat, was the state of Myanmar able to turn its focus to the reasons for its isolation and address those sufficiently to reintegrate itself into the international community. North Koreans, however, are still trying to find ways to address that security threat. Both of those threats develop outside of the state emerge from their colonial period.


Dr. Abrahamian explained that in North Korea, every single person involved in publishing is heavily surveilled and everything that comes out in the media is subject to strict censorship, whereas, in Myanmar, the press is given more freedom and leniency. Even in controlling its borders, Myanmar’s borders are porous and easily accessible, whereas North Korean borders are among the most fiercely guarded places in the world. Snuggling takes place in both places, but in far less frequency in North Korea than in Myanmar. Finally, North Korea operates under a state ideology – the grand narrative of the Korean people righteously struggling for their independence against the hostile world; something absent in Burma. After comparing the conditions of North Korea and Myanmar, Dr. Abrahamian concluded that North Korea and Myanmar, despite their similar histories, have taken different paths mainly due to their government policies.

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