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Are Cambodia and Myanmar Models for an Open North Korea?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) gives field guidance during a visit to the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station near completion in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, Sept. 14, 2015.

There are questions whether the reclusive country is really looking at the possibility of opening up to the world.

With the recent gesture of North Korea’s leader reaching out to China, Russia, and South Korea, there are questions whether the reclusive country is really looking at the possibility of opening up to the world.

If so, two countries can potentially offer pathways for North Korea to close its chapter of isolation, economic sanctions, and become global market economies: Cambodia and Myanmar. Both are regaining footing on the international stage after being extremely closed, and though North Korea is a different case entirely, some security experts believe there are lessons there.

Joseph DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and a former special envoy for six-party talks with North Korea, recently returned from a trip to Cambodia and Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma.

Cambodia, he said, has turned from a “very bad path” and is now gaining momentum in development and “giving hope to its people,” he said. Cambodia, for example, emerged from the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil strife, and now has an economy growing at around 7 percent per year. “And certainly Myanmar is the same way, with the military junta being removed, and elections coming up in November,” he said.

North Korea has reached out to China in the past, but even those gestures can be tense, DeTrani said. Meanwhile, North Korea’s positive relationships with Cambodia and Myanmar may prove helpful, he said.

Cambodia serves as an example, due in part to the peace and stability, said Chan Sophal, director of the Center for Policy Studies. “As Cambodia opened up, became a market economy, and democratized, we’ve seen incredible development in the country,” he said. “Our market could reach as far as Asia, United States, and Europe, after we became a member of Asean and the WTO.”

Myanmar, meanwhile, was under military rule until it was dissolved in 2011, after national elections the year before, with a new government reforming the country both politically and economically.

Chaw Chaw Sein, chair of the international relations department at Yangon University, says that North Korea can learn from Myanmar by reaching out to world powers.

“North Korea should learn from us and how we made very close connections with and engaged with the regional as well as the international community,” she said. “And the democratic transformation is coming from top-down, not from ‘people power.’”

Yet changes in either country would not have been possible without the political will of their leaders, said Chheang Vannarith, a lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at Leeds University, in the UK.

“Like in Myanmar, if Thein Sein had no such intention, the country would not have been reformed,” he said. “As for North Korea, it has received tremendous pressure from the international community, the UN, and so forth, but the leader seems not to care.”

Since 2005, the United States, South Korea, China, and Russia have been pressuring North Korea to become a nuclear-neutralized country, especially by setting up six-party talks on disarmament.

Negotiations have not made any progress since 2008, DeTrani said, though the US remains interested in reestablishing dialogue with North Korea. Now, South Korea could be a critical player in reconciling with North Korea, he said.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye could help, Chheang Vannarith said, though China may have more influence. “I don’t think North Korea would listen to the US,” he added.

Recently, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, has reached out to China, Russia, Europe and even Asean. Since May 2014, Pyongyang has been implementing economic reforms, allowing farmers to own some proportion of their harvest and improving infrastructure.

“He is working on the economic reforms,” DeTrani said. “He’s creating a number of economic zones. He reaches out to China in a significant ways. He’s been to Russia, and been to Europe, and they are engaged with Asean.”

Even so, it is unlikely the North will give up on its nuclear program. “North Korea is saying, ‘We are not giving up our nuclear weapons,’” DeTrani said. “That’s something that the US would not accept in my view, or South Korea, or Japan, and I hope, China and Russia also.”