For decades, they have been two of the world’s most reclusive nations.
Burma, run by a cabal of generals, squelched any attempt at democratic change and kept the country’s most popular figure under strict house arrest for years.
North Korea, run as a Stalinist dictatorship by the same family since the 1940s, simply sealed itself off. Outsiders were rarely allowed to visit, tourists were long unknown and the only way ordinary people could escape the country’s extreme poverty and political repression was to steal across the border into China.
But in very different ways, the two nations have opened themselves up over the past year or so, allowing the world to peer behind the political curtains they had so laboriously erected.
Both now have foreign journalists arriving in unprecedented numbers, although the visits are tightly restricted in North Korea. Both have had observers predicting momentous changes. Both governments have insisted—repeatedly—that they are working to improve the lives of their citizens.
But how much change has there been? That’s more complicated.
The question is debated relentlessly in Burma, asked by everyone from wealthy businessmen with military connections to pro-democracy political activists. Though skeptics abound, “hope” has become the country’s political watchword.
But for observers of North Korea, the answer is far more definitive, and far less optimistic.
“None,” said Andrei Lankov, a scholar on the North at Seoul’s Kookmin University, when asked if he had seen signs of significant change since the December death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, and the rise to power of his young son.
In his opinion, “The young dictator is still controlled and surrounded by the old guard, the same people who for many years formulated and executed his father’s polices, so it is too early to expect any noticeable change.”
Less than two years ago, though, similar talk was common in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, when a November 2010 national election was widely dismissed as a political sham stage-managed by the generals. Only in recent months has that pessimism begun to lift.
“We are now seeing some changes we didn’t expect,” said Yin Sein, a 59-year old high school teacher in Rangoon.
First, hundreds of political prisoners were freed—more than 650 in the past year. Then, in April, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in historic by-elections. Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who had spent more than 15 years under house arrest, now sits in Parliament.
Today, little feels repressive about Burma. Unlike Pyongyang, a funereal town which basically shuts down at nightfall, Rangoon has long been a city of neighborhood bars, sprawling markets and storefront restaurants with plastic tables on the sidewalk.
Now, with the end of military rule, even protests have come into the open, as people test their newfound freedoms.
Every night this past week, 100 people or so have gathered at the Sule Pagoda, a major Buddhist shrine in central Rangoon, to vent their anger about the rolling electrical blackouts that plague the city. Hundreds more people come simply to watch.
Two years ago, such a protest almost certainly would have been met with tear gas, baton-wielding policemen and trips to jail. Today, the police watch calmly from a distance, and after a few hours they politely ask everyone to leave.
But things are seldom clear in Burma, officially known as Myanmar. The generals, some of whom grew immensely rich during decades of military rule, still wield great power over Burma’s politics. Old laws remain in place that would enable them—if they felt threatened, or believed democratization was moving too quickly—to once again seize complete power.
Burma has become a country of political contradictions, a place where local officials no longer stage middle-of-the-night checks to look for unregistered visitors in private homes, but where many people register their guests with the authorities anyway. The laws requiring registration, after all, are still on the books.
It is a country where restrictions have been lifted on long-oppressed political parties, but where many people are still too afraid to talk about politics on the telephone.
“We are not sure what is underneath this veneer of change and how sustainable these changes are,” Yin Sein said.
Even Suu Kyi warns against the dangers of undue optimism.
“We are at a point in history when there is a possibility for transition, but I do not think we can take it for granted that this transition will come about,” she told reporters recently.
“I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma,” she told a conference in Washington D.C., speaking on a video link.
But if the people of Burma have learned the art of pessimism through decades of military rule, the people of North Korea have learned they shouldn’t even contemplate change—at least not publicly.
North Koreans have spent years in prison for questioning the legitimacy of the Kim family—Founding ruler Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and now his grandson Kim Jong Un. If many observers and foreign governments had hoped that Kim Jong Il’s death would pave the way for political reform, there has been little sign of change.
“If such change is to happen (and this is a big if), it will take place only after Kim Jong Un’s people assume … some independent power—that is, in a couple of years at the fastest,” Lankov said in an email.
In many ways, North Korea can appear frozen in time, with one family in power for more than 60 years, and its dreary, poverty-battered cities decorated with Soviet-style propaganda posters.
So any change can seem momentous, from the dozens of journalists allowed into North Korea in April to cover the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, to the growth of its tourism industry. Some observers saw sparks of change when North Korea publicly admitted the April failure of a rocket launch it said was intended to carry a satellite into space (though much of the world insists the launch was cover for testing long-range missile technology). In January, The Associated Press opened its newest bureau in Pyongyang.
The vast majority of those outsiders, though, normally glimpse only the lives of everyday North Koreans through the windows of their tour buses. For the most part, they see only what the Pyongyang government wants them to see, whether massive rallies in support of Kim Jong Un or huge monuments that glorify his father and grandfather.
In Burma, journalists now travel easily across much of the country, talking to anyone from top officials to poor farmers to opposition leaders. Not so in North Korea. Visitors rarely see the cities that have almost no electricity, or the homes of people struggling with immense poverty. They rarely leave Pyongyang—North Korea’s showcase capital—and certainly meet no political prisoners.
And while some people in Burma are afraid to talk politics on the telephone, few people in North Korea even have access to international phone lines.
But if few signs are seen of internal change in North Korea, it is evident people there can increasingly see the outside world.
While North Korea’s government-controlled media allow little but praise for the Kim family, the spread of technology—from inexpensive DVD players to cheap, handheld radios—means there are now many ways for North Koreans to get around their government’s media roadblocks.
Most North Koreans have no access to the Internet, but they can increasingly buy DVDs smuggled in from China. Those DVDs show everything from South Korean soap operas to recordings of foreign news broadcasts.
“In 2012, North Koreans can get more outside information, through more types of media, from more sources, than ever before,” according to a recent report commissioned by the US State Department and conducted by a consulting group, InterMedia. “Despite the incredibly low starting point, important changes in the information environment in North Korean society are under way.”