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Trump-Kim Summit

Kim to study Vietnam's economic reforms during visit

North Korean leader seeks growth while maintaining firm grip

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the construction site of a greenhouse in the summer of 2018. He is looking for ways to spur economic growth as international sanctions bite.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the construction site of a greenhouse in the summer of 2018. He is looking for ways to spur economic growth as international sanctions bite.   © KCNA/Reuters

HANOI -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be examining Vietnam closely during his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump here as he pursues a model for economic development under one-party rule.

Vietnam began to open up its economy in 1986 under the Doi Moi reforms. The policy called for welcoming foreign investment while maintaining the Communist Party's monopoly over politics. The country now boasts one of Southeast Asia's fastest-expanding economies with real growth of 7.08% last year.

Although China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, the neighbors are historic rivals with clashing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Hanoi has even moved closer to the U.S., its chief adversary in the Vietnam War, for this reason. North Korea is similarly looking to keep China at arm's length while developing its economy.

This geopolitical picture has apparently sparked Kim's interest in Vietnam's economic development, and he is expected to inspect sites like factories when he visits this month.

If North Korea opens up to foreign investment, it probably will come under pressure to relax the regime's control of information and take other politically sensitive measures. In any case, it will be impossible to stop information from flowing into the country if it accepts foreign companies.

Vietnam is led by "four pillars" -- the Communist Party general secretary, the president, the prime minister and the National Assembly chair -- to prevent the concentration of power in a single person, unlike in North Korea. The country's rapid economic growth has helped maintain support for the party, which has loosened its grip on information somewhat.

Kim, on the other hand, has shown no sign of dismantling his dictatorship and maintains strong control over information. It will therefore be hard for North Korea to introduce reforms, says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, because the foundation of the country's totalitarian regime will be shaken if it opens up to foreign investment like Vietnam.

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