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Opinion

Vietnam can be template for a US deal with North Korea

Hanoi summit will require big concessions from both Trump and Kim

The Trump administration's plan seems to be to push Pyongyang toward accepting the Vietnamese model.    © KCNA/Reuters

The dates, Feb. 27-28, and the venue, Hanoi, for a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have been confirmed. But almost nothing else is clear. The agenda for the talks is unknown, and nobody, except sometimes Trump, seems to believe that Kim genuinely intends to abandon nuclear weapons.

There are signs, though, of an emerging American strategy -- not least in the choice of venue, which reflects growing hopes in Washington that North Korea can be encouraged to embark on economic and political reforms like those embraced by Hanoi over the last three decades, transforming Vietnam from communist autarky to open market economics without destabilizing the ruling party.

Trump -- who tweeted after an earlier summit in Singapore that the nuclear threat from North Korea had ended -- appears to have stepped back from demanding complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and a halt to Pyongyang's missile development programs, and has ignored the regime's stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

But he does seem to believe that Kim is serious about economic reforms, first set out at a congress of the ruling Workers Party of Korea in 2016, when North Korea shifted the public focus of economic policy from military-based security to development. Kim went further in a New Year address in January this year, emphasizing a shift in resources from munitions factories to agriculture and non-military production.

This change of strategy has clearly been influenced by Vietnam's experience. Judging from a surge in number of bilateral meetings between top officials from North Korea and Vietnam, including a visit to Hanoi in December 2018 by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho that was focused on Vietnam's experience of economic reforms. Vietnamese Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh has just concluded a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang to prepare for the summit -- Vietnam's path is an inspiration."

North Korea's Foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, left, and Vietnamese Prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc talk at the Government Office in Hanoi on Dec.1, 2018.   © Reuters

The two countries share a lot of history. Both have suffered internal division and a common enemy -- the U.S. -- and both ruling parties are officially communist, though Kim's rule is dynastic while the Communist Party Of Vietnam has maintained a collective leadership. North Korea supplied North Vietnam with arms and pilots during its war against the U.S. and South Vietnam, while North Vietnam supplied rice to Pyongyang during and after the war. But the two countries have subsequently followed markedly different paths.

Vietnam's gross domestic product per head at purchasing power parity is estimated by U.K.-based Oxford Economics to have been about $1,500 in 1988 -- about half the level in North Korea. By 2018, North Korea's GDP per head at PPP had halved, according to Oxford Economics, while Vietnam's had quadrupled to more than $6,000. Vietnam's annual growth in GDP has averaged 6.3% over the last two decades, making it one of Asia's fastest growing economies.

Much of this reflects the success of Vietnam's Doi Moi (renovation) program, launched in 1986 -- a comprehensive series of economic reforms that has made the country an attractive destination for foreign investment while preserving political and social stability. North Korea, meanwhile, has stuck rigidly to a policy of economic and military self-determination, becoming significantly poorer in the process.

The Trump administration's plan seems to be to push Pyongyang toward accepting the Vietnamese model by stressing the benefits of economic reforms to Kim's government alongside the success of Vietnam's communists in achieving economic development while maintaining their position as the country's unchallenged rulers.

This is not a new idea. The Vietnam model has been discussed directly between the North Korean and Vietnamese leaderships since the 1990s, and Kim Jong Un sent a delegation to Hanoi in 2012 that was specifically focused on Vietnam's experience of reforms and market-oriented socialism. If Kim is serious about economic reform the time may be right for a switch in American tactics from punitive sanctions to a mix of sanctions and economic incentives. As the late U.S. Senator John McCain said of North Korea in 1995, "To get a mule to move, you have to show it the carrot and hit it with a stick at the same time."

How long the current conducive environment will last is unclear, however. Trump is notoriously volatile, and may lack the patience required for engagement with North Korea -- a process in which progress is bound to take time. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is dedicated to inter-Korean peace, but risks growing distrust among his own people that may affect his tenure. Vietnam, which volunteered to share its experiences with Pyongyang, has gone through phases of cooperation and comradeship with North Korea, as well as tensions and open hostility.

However, Kim appears to understand that a failure to show cooperative intentions will likely end in a return to isolation and hostility from most of the world, wasting an opportunity to lift the U.S. threat and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. He is arriving in Vietnam on Feb. 25, two days before the summit, for talks with Vietnam's ruling party secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and to tour a number of industrial cities, including Hai Phong -- a northern port located in a special economic zone.

This suggests that the Trump and Kim administrations are both open to the idea of a Vietnamese model for North Korea, with the success of the Doi Moi reforms and the longevity of the Communist Party Of Vietnam providing a template for economic reform without regime change in Pyongyang. But such a pathway is a long shot, given the great differences between Vietnam, which never possessed a nuclear weapons capability, and today's North Korea.

Sustaining the momentum provided by the Singapore talks, and by two inter-Korean summits in 2018, will be difficult. It seems likely that economic cooperation is the only issue discussed in Singapore on which the two sides can hope for rapid progress. But any breakthrough deal in Hanoi -- such as lifting sanctions or signing a peace declaration -- will have to be contingent on Pyongyang showing progress on a comprehensive revision of its military-first policy.

If Vietnam is to serve as an example, it is also worth remembering that Hanoi had to make big concessions, including withdrawing troops from neighboring Cambodia, before it was able to normalize relations with the U.S. and get sanctions lifted -- a gradual process that ended only in 2016.

Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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