Vietnam's past offers lessons for North Korea's future as Kim and Trump arrive for summit

05 Mar 2019
Vietnam's past offers lessons for North Korea's future as Kim and Trump arrive for summit

US President Donald Trump says North Korea “will become a great Economic Powerhouse”.

Judging by his statements it looks as if economic assistance will be on the agenda for the upcoming US-North Korea summit in Vietnam being held February 27-28.

It is hard to imagine an open North Korea. However, who would have thought 30 years ago that a once diplomatically and economically isolated country like Vietnam would one day play host to meetings like the Trump-Kim summit?

It is also well on its way to becoming one of the top 20 largest economies in the world.

Vietnam’s story is a powerful reminder of how things can and do change in world politics.

Far-fetched as Trump’s vision for North Korea might be, if a model exists for how a small country with few friends and a crumbling economy can reintegrate itself with the international community, it is Vietnam.

While North Korea and Vietnam share characteristics like a one-party communist state and similar histories patterned by Cold War geopolitics, they have nonetheless evolved in opposite directions.

Vietnam, like North Korea today, was once a country isolated by its aggression.

As a measure of Vietnam’s hostility, the only permanent member of the UN Security Council it had not exchanged bullets with since World War 2 was its only consistent ally – the Soviet Union.

Until the early 1980s, Vietnam was almost continually in a crisis, fighting Japan, France, and later the US in a conflict that was also tantamount to civil war.

It invaded its neighbour Cambodia and in 1979 clashed with its gigantic northern neighbour, China. Vietnam-China relations collapsed and normal relations did not resume for another decade.

Most Vietnamese would say their political revolution started in 1945 with a guerrilla war against France.

One could argue their economic revolution started in 1986. That is the year the Vietnamese Communist Party launched a program of economic reforms designed to phase out the command economy and introduce market forces.

However, it would take another 20 years for Vietnam to reintegrate with the rest of the world.

Perhaps its final step to becoming a full member of the global economy happened in 2007, when it joined the World Trade Organization. The next year it became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

There are two other key differences between Vietnam and North Korea. For one, Vietnam never sought to develop a nuclear weapons program.

Secondly, unlike North Korea, Vietnam does not have a ruling family or a cult of personality centred on a supreme leader.

Vietnam underwent a low-key leadership change in the same year the Party rolled out economic reforms. A new generation of party leaders came in without mass purges or executions.

In North Korea, all political power is concentrated around Kim Jong Un.

North Korea’s characteristics make it a far more difficult economy to open.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s complexities do not seem to deter Trump from pursuing his own aims.

The US special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said the US was prepared to explore ways of advancing economic opportunities for the country.

At a public event at Stanford University in January, he explained that economic prosperity alongside denuclearisation and peace was at the core of Trump’s vision for North Korea.

While in Vietnam, Kim Jong Un will be in the midst of a country that turned its economy and relations with its neighbours and major powers around completely.

The Vietnamese would be more than happy to share their story of transformation.

The question is, would North Korea listen?

This article was originally published online on WA Today on 27 February 2019.


Kyle Springer
Kyle Springer
Senior Analyst
Kyle Springer is the Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He provides high-level program assistance and develops the think tank and external outreach programs of the Centre. Kyle also directs the Centre's Indonesia programs and convenes policy workshops focussed on Australia-Indonesia relations.
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