In Hanoi, Vietnam, this week for his second summit with United States (US) President Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s 35-year-old leader, will not only be looking for a deal with the US on the nuclear issue. His longer-term aim is to lift his country out of diplomatic isolation, gain relief from years of international economic sanctions, and reform the poverty-stricken “hermit kingdom,” enabling him to remain in power for decades to come.
As Kim charts his country’s future course, he may find that Vietnam’s own record over the past three decades is the most useful model to follow. This is why his separate bilateral visit to Vietnam this week is also very important, and should not be overlooked amid the fanfare surrounding the summit with Trump.
There are many similarities between North Korea today and Vietnam before it opened up and adopted market reforms known as Doi Moi (renovation) in the late 1980s. Back then, Vietnam also was a command economy dominated by inefficient state-owned enterprises. Overspending on defense had led to widespread poverty and underdevelopment, and the country faced heavy international sanctions because of its occupation of Cambodia. After 30 years of reforms, Vietnam’s economy has grown thirtyfold, and the country graduated from low-income status in 2010. It is now one of the world’s most open economies, with total trade more than double the size of its gross domestic product (GDP).
More important, although Vietnam is not ruled by a strongman like Kim, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has a similar monopoly on power. Vietnam’s economic reforms over the past three decades have strengthened the CPV’s rule, not least by increasing the party’s domestic and international legitimacy. This is no doubt of interest to Kim, who is deeply concerned about security for himself and his regime.
In terms of foreign relations, Vietnam also used to be a bitter enemy of the US. It was not until 1994 that the US lifted its economic embargo on the country, paving the way for normalisation of relations the following year. Since then, bilateral ties have steadily strengthened to their quasi-alliance level today. The US is now Vietnam’s largest export market and 11th-largest foreign investor, while Vietnam is an increasingly important market for American companies and a key partner in US regional security strategy.
If Kim genuinely wants to improve ties with the US and undertake economic reforms, then Vietnam offers a more suitable model than China. First, Vietnam is much nearer in size to North Korea. China, by contrast, has over 1.4 billion people, giving the country’s Communist Party room to implement policies that North Korea and Vietnam could not afford. Second, and more important, Kim would not want to seem more dependent on China by adopting the Chinese model. This would make North Korea vulnerable in the long run and hurt its efforts to normalise relations with the US, which now increasingly views China as a threat.
Just as Vietnam had to resolve the Cambodia issue in the 1980s before it could escape international sanctions and start to normalise relations with the US, North Korea must resolve its nuclear issue before it can hope for any significant American rewards. And, given the high stakes for both parties, it is unrealistic to expect a major US-North Korea nuclear agreement after just a few rounds of negotiations.
Nonetheless, because this is the second summit, there are reasons to believe that the two sides will try to make concrete progress in Hanoi. Kim needs some positive outcomes to show his goodwill and to facilitate further talks with the US, while Trump needs another foreign-policy trophy to consolidate his domestic standing ahead of the 2020 presidential election. One possible outcome might be a clearer definition of “denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula. Or the US and North Korea may try to issue a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which technically has been ongoing since fighting stopped in 1953 under an armistice agreement.
Regardless of the summit’s outcome, Kim may want to heed another political lesson from Vietnam’s dealings with the US. Some CPV leaders used to worry about US intentions to overthrow their regime through “peaceful evolution,” a scheme to encourage liberal economic and political reforms in Vietnam that would ultimately erode the Party’s rule. To assuage these fears, a 2013 US-Vietnamese bilateral declaration included a commitment by both parties to respect each other’s political systems.
North Korea may try to extract a similar commitment from the US this week, arguing that undermining Kim’s regime is not in American interests. The overwhelming US priority in East Asia now, and for decades to come, is to contain China’s rise. And, just as Vietnam has become increasingly independent of China since the Doi Moi reforms, a more economically dynamic and less isolated North Korea would serve US strategic interests much better than a poor, China-dependent one.
True, we should not expect too much from this second US-North Korea summit. We don’t know whether Kim would ever seriously consider abandoning his nuclear weapons, or how sincere Trump is in engaging with North Korea. But as the marked improvement in US-Vietnamese relations over the past three decades shows, enmity need not be permanent. If North Korea seeks to follow Vietnam’s path, the US will benefit, too.
Le Hong Hiep is a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and the author of Living Next to the Giant: The Political Economy of Vietnam’s Relations With China Under Doi Moi.