Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win visited North Korea on Oct. 27 to hold the first high-level meeting since diplomatic relations were severed 25 years ago. When the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in April 2007, the reaction was largely twofold: banal and alarmist.
The banal views argued that both authoritarian states were merely re-establishing formal diplomatic relations severed after North Korean agents bombed the Martyrs Mausoleum in Rangoon in 1983, killing several members of the South Korean cabinet.
Alarmist views spoke of the specter of North Korea handing over nuclear weapons technology to Burma, even though North Korea has been supplying conventional weapons to Burma's military ruled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) for years. The SPDC also announced the purchase of a 10 megawat nuclear reactor (the same size as North Korea's) from Russia, just weeks after the two countries restored ties.
While both perspectives hold truth, the real concern should be for the citizens of Burma and North Korea, who continue to suffer under the repressive regimes. Both countries rank among the worst human rights abusers, persecute those who attempt to flee, and severely curtail the ability of the outside world to help those in need.
In Burma, following the crackdown on peaceful protests for change led by monks in September 2007, more than 1,000 people were incarcerated, with many killed. In North Korea, basic freedoms have been restricted for so long and on such a scale that there has never been a public demonstration calling for freedom and democracy.
Those attempting to flee repression and poverty at home are routinely persecuted. For years, North Korea has threatened to severely punish all who are caught in China and repatriated. More than 1,000 North Koreans in the past year have trod a perilous route from their country through China into Laos, then across the Mekong River to Thailand with hopes to ultimately reach South Korea, or in some cases the United States.
Some have even attempted to transit through Burma. In light of the restored diplomatic relations between North Korea and Burma, some observers fear that North Koreans caught in Burma would be returned home to face torture and imprisonment.
The military offensives and other actions of Burma's SPDC has driven over 160,000 refugees across the border with Thailand, thousands more into India, while hundreds of thousands live precarious lives as migrant workers in China, Thailand and India.
The international community is often called on to respond to the government orchestrated misery of the people of North Korea and Burma. Efforts by relief and development agencies to alleviate this suffering are restricted by paranoid and often corrupt officials.
In North Korea, international aid workers have been struggling to properly monitor food distribution to ensure that the food reaches the most vulnerable population instead of the elite or the military. Aid workers often face rejection and restriction by North Korean officials.
In Burma, the initial government restrictions on the activities of foreign humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 have evidently eased. But this followed weeks of obstruction when over 2.4 million people waited for desperately needed aid to arrive. Such optimism is not the case in the rest of Burma, where government restrictions and surveillance have hampered aid programs for years.
Restrictions on organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has severely limited their access to prisons in Burma since late 2005, and the ICRC released a rare public statement in June 2007 pointing to frequent violations of international humanitarian law in ethnic conflict areas. In North Korea, the ICRC has yet to obtain access to its notorious detention facilities.
The U.N. expert on North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, has never been permitted to visit the country, while Tomas Ojeo Quintana, the new U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, visited Burma in a short, tightly scripted visit in August this year. The U.N. Secretary General's Special Adviser to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has visited several times since 2005, and despite initial optimism he was making progress, was rebuffed by senior SPDC officials in August, and his efforts now seem stalled.
The chumminess of bilateral visits should not belie the effects closer ties could have on the people of North Korea and Burma. The renewed ties mean that both governments have a new, formal ally in prolonging and justifying their system of repression.
The people who suffer will not be the elites who rule, but those who exist precariously in the face of international banality and alarmism, which both the North Korean leadership and the Burmese military are relying on.
Kay Seok is Korea researcher and David Scott Mathieson is Burma researcher at Human Rights Watch