Back To Top

[Editorial] Kim in Vietnam

NK leader should learn from the path former communist ally has taken

Without a doubt, the outcome of the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should be assessed primarily on what kind of agreement they make on denuclearizing the North.

This week, US and North Korean officials will meet in Hanoi to discuss matters related to the Trump-Kim showdown that will take place in the Vietnamese capital Feb. 27-28. Media from around the world are already flocking to the city.

As the high-profile meeting propels Hanoi into the global limelight, one might ask why the two sides chose the Vietnamese city as the location for their crucial face-off.

Apart from logistical reasons, such as the relatively short flight range of Kim’s aircraft and the presence of both countries’ embassies in Hanoi, the selection of the Vietnamese capital has historical and political bearing for the US and North Korea -- and also for another relevant party, South Korea.

First of all, both Vietnam and North Korea fought wars against the US. The mighty US military that was victorious in two world wars lost its Vietnamese campaign and only managed to end the Korean War in a truce.

Both South and North Korea were involved in the Vietnam War, which raged at the peak of the Cold War. North Korea sent 87 air force pilots to aid the Vietnamese communists, and 14 were killed by the US military. South Korea’s participation in the war alongside American troops was more extensive: About 300,000 South Korean troops fought in Vietnam, and about 5,000 perished.

In other words, Vietnam was a place where all three major players in the North Korean nuclear crisis -- the two Koreas and the US -- were entangled in another war that characterized a certain period of the Cold War in Asia.

But after that war ended in 1975, Vietnam took a different path from the one North Korea has followed since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Vietnam normalized relations with South Korea in 1992 and with the US in 1995. The “Doi Moi” open-door reform policy, adopted in 1986, had paved the way for the establishment of formal relations with its two former adversaries. Now Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant and fastest-growing developing economies.

So it is not hard to imagine that the US probably agreed on the location of the meeting in the hope that North Korea would follow in the footsteps of Vietnam, ending the hostility and improving its political and economic relationship with the US. Even if this was not a factor, anyone who understands the history of the three countries will certainly hope that North Korea becomes a second Vietnam.

For his part, Kim probably thought he could benefit from flying to Vietnam to meet the US leader. Most of all, a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong, which is very likely, would extend the young Kim’s diplomatic outreach, which has so far been confined to South Korea, the US and China since he took over power from his late father in 2011.

Kim will be the first North Korean leader to visit Vietnam since his grandfather and founder of the North, Kim Il-sung, met Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in 1964 in Hanoi.

Besides reinforcing bilateral relations with Vietnam, Kim may also have thought that Vietnam would be a good place to demonstrate his willingness to make North Korea -- one of the world’s most isolated countries -- into a normal state by pursuing an open-door policy and economic development.

If so, what Kim has in mind strikes a chord with what Trump has said: The North could become an “economic powerhouse” if it abandons its nuclear weapons and missiles.

In the end, a Kim Jong-un enlightened by the Vietnamese experience of putting war, hostility and ideology behind it and focusing on economic development would certainly facilitate the denuclearization process.

It is hoped that Kim’s trip to Vietnam will awaken him to the fact that his country will benefit far more from opening up and pursuing economic development than by joining the club of nuclear states and remaining strangled by the harsh international sanctions.