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Rogue agents

Renegotiating pariah state partnerships: Why Myanmar and North Korea respond differently to Chinese influence

Pages 502-525
Published online: 31 Aug 2019


Pariah status for violating international norms over decades increased Myanmar and North Korea’s dependence on China. Myanmar’s post-2010 reforms sought to reduce international sanctions and diversify diplomatic relations. North Korea pursued a diplomatic offensive after the 2018 Winter Olympics, but only after declaring itself a nuclear state. Why, despite both states’ politically unsustainable dependence on China, did Myanmar and North Korea pursue different strategies for renegotiating reliance? Unlike the Kim regime, Myanmar’s junta could step back from power while protecting its interests. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a credible signaler of reforms, providing Western governments political cover to reduce sanctions. Myanmar used liberalizing reforms to address internal threats, whereas North Korea utilizes external threats for regime legitimacy. The theoretical underpinnings and empirical trajectories of these distinctions–as well as Myanmar’s backsliding on human rights–explain why reducing reliance on China may prove more difficult than shedding pariah status.


We gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Romina Abuan, Cheang I Cheng, Guo Xinran, Li Jianeng, Li Kun, Li Wei, Wu Szu Yi, and Yang Diya. We also gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of interviewees in Myanmar, South Korea, and China. We also thank the anonymous peer reviewers for helpful comments. This article builds upon research previously produced for the Asan Institute for Policy Studies: Chow, J. T., & Easley, L.-E. (2012). No Hope Without Change: Myanmar’s Reforms and Lessons for North Korea. Asan Issue Brief No. 36.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information


This work was supported by the University of Macau under Grant MYRG2017-00165-FSS.

Notes on contributors

Jonathan T. Chow is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, USA. His research focuses on regional politics in East and Southeast Asia and the role of religion in international politics. His work has appeared in Asian Survey, Review of International Political Economy, Australian Journal of International Affairs, and Pacific Affairs.

Leif-Eric Easley is an Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul, Korea. He specializes in U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral coordination on engaging China and North Korea, and is involved in track II diplomacy with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. His research has appeared in International Politics, World Affairs, Korean Social Science Journal, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Pacific Affairs, Journal of Contemporary China, and Survival.

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