Curtains open wide in Myanmar, a crack in N. Korea

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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 Myanmar, once known as Burma. The generals, some of whom grew immensely rich during decades of military rule, still wield great power over Myanmar‘s politics. Old laws remain in place that would enable them — if they felt threatened, or believed democratization was moving too quickly — once again to seize complete power.

Myanmar 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’s 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 Mrs. 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 via video link.

But if the people of Myanmar 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,” Mr. 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 Myanmar, 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.

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