South Korea to North Korea: Learn from Myanmar

South Korea's President Lee made a historic visit to Myanmar this week to boost long-frozen relations – and send a message to North Korea about the benefits of coming in from the cold.

Kim Byung-man/Yonhap/AP
In this photo taken Monday, May 14, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, shakes hands with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein prior to a meeting at the presidential house in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

On May 14, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Myanmar, partly with the aim of using the formerly isolated country as an example to North Korea of how it might benefit from improved relations with Seoul and the international community. 

This week, in what some are calling a watershed event, President Lee became the first South Korean leader to visit Myanmar (also called Burma) since 1983, when an assassination attempt on the then-leader Chun Doo-hwan put relations into a deep freeze. Relations between Seoul and Yangon are only now showing signs of recovery.

President Lee held an extensive session with Myanmar President U Thein Sein where the two discussed issues related to North Korea. According to Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for national security strategy, Lee promised more South Korean assistance if Myanmar ended its military cooperation with Pyongyang. Thein Sein reportedly agreed to cease arms purchases from North Korea as well as join international condemnation of its provocative acts.

South Korea is apparently willing to share lessons with Myanmar from its own transition from dictatorship to functioning, free-market democracy.

South Korea’s leadership is hopeful that North Korea is watching Myanmar closely. “We want to tell North Korea that it must learn a lesson from Myanmar to cooperate with the international community and receive aid for development,” said Mr. Kim.

Thein Sein pledged to honor the UN nonproliferation treaty and UN Security Council resolution 1874, which was passed unanimously in 2009 after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. Resolution 1874 prescribes sanctions on commerce and arms trading with North Korea.

Myanmar agreed to release a North Korean refugee currently being held after illegally crossing into the country. Countries that receive North Korean refugees receive concerted pressure from both North and South Korea.

“It certainly has the potential to be a landmark event, but it is still too soon to tell,” says Sung Yoon Lee, a scholar of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Myanmar and North Korea once enjoyed close ties. The two countries reestablished relations in 2007 as Myanmar sought allies in the midst of international isolation brought on by sanctions over its human rights record.

But now Myanmar, which has recently hosted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, held fair elections, and seated longtime regime opponent Aung San suu Kyi in parliament, has apparently chosen South Korea as its closer ally.

Still, Myanmar’s cordiality in hosting President Lee was not altogether surprising, even considering the long freeze between Seoul and Yangon. “One would not expect the Burmese to say anything different to the visiting South Koreans other than that Burma would make basic moves like stopping weapons trading with North Korea,” says Mr. Lee of Tufts.

“South Korea probably got some kind of assurance of this before the visit.”

How will the North take the news?

There are examples of Asian countries that have embraced market economies after having had centrally planned systems, none more vivid than North Korea’s closest ally, China. Pyongyang hasn’t yet been moved after having seen its neighbor and benefactor reform, so analysts are cautious.

According to Lee, “The likelihood of a similar transition taking place in North Korea is very low. I don’t think North Korea is watching Burma right now and thinking they should follow suit.”

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