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N Korea at crossroads

Second Trump-Kim summit set for Feb 27-28 in Vietnam

President claims to have prevented a 'major war' with North Korea

SINGAPORE -- U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28.

"Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea," Trump said in his State of the Union address in Washington late Tuesday.

"Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one."

Vietnam, which opened up its economy under Doi Moi reforms in the 1980s, has also been touted by the U.S. as a possible model for Pyongyang to follow. The country emerged as a likely host after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last July, shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Pompeo lauded the "once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership" between Vietnam and the U.S., before turning to North Korea.

"Your country can replicate this path. It's yours if you'll seize the moment. The miracle could be yours; it can be your miracle in North Korea as well," Pompeo said.

"China and Vietnam are the only communist regimes that have succeeded in both preserving their powers and developing their economies, and the DPRK has more reason to learn from Vietnam than China," said Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Political Research in Hanoi.

Juxtaposing Vietnam with Singapore gives the impression that the U.S. is signaling reform options to Kim. However, it may be a stretch to consider either host country a viable alternative for the isolated state.

North Korea is much bigger than Singapore, a tiny city-state that thrived as an investment gateway to Southeast Asia. While the Lee family has held sway over the country since its founding in 1965, their control -- maintained through at least a facade of elections -- bears no resemblance to the Kim dynasty's unassailable and brutal grip on power in North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore on June 11, 2018. He held his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump the following day.    © Reuters

The U.S. hopes that Pyongyang will embark on reforms similar to Doi Moi, which transformed Hanoi's self-sufficient socialist economy into one of the world's most trade-oriented. The Southeast Asian country has attracted major investments from companies such as South Korea's Samsung, which is likely to be among the first to do business in North Korea should reforms take place.

"Vietnam is a model of economic development and relative openness, especially compared to China, that the U.S. would like to showcase to Pyongyang," said Steven Nagy, senior associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo. "The U.S. is hoping that Chairman Kim will not only see but understand that the U.S. and Mr. Trump are sincere about economic development assistance and regime security in exchange for denuclearization."

Economic ties between Vietnam and the U.S. have blossomed since the normalization of relations in 1995. Vietnam later joined the World Trade Organization and in 2001 signed a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. -- partnerships that have helped the country climb to "lower middle income" status.

Even so, it is unlikely that Kim will opt for Vietnam-style communism. While Vietnam has been run by an authoritarian one-party regime for more than four decades, power has ebbed and flowed between various leaders and factions within the party. This diminishes the likelihood that Kim will ditch North Korea's cult-of-personality system in favor of Vietnam-style party-led politics.

"Vietnam is a model of economic development and relative openness, especially compared to China" (photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"Vietnamese leadership is collective, while the DPRK's is individual, and if Kim doesn't want to give up any bit of his power, it's very unlikely that the DPRK will successfully implement their own reform policy," said Nguyen Khac Giang.

Trump previously visited Vietnam in November 2017 for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang. U.S. media have reported that the summit may take place in that city.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Danang appealed to Trump as a summit venue because he "prefers open and secure circumstances" while Kim prefers capital Hanoi as North Korea has an embassy there.

Hanoi staged the 2010 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while around a quarter of Vietnam's economic activity takes place around Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest urban area. However Danang has prospered recently and nearby beaches and golf courses are popular with visitors.

The choice of Vietnam may also signal to Kim that if he cooperates on war legacy issues -- along with denuclearization -- then the U.S. could in time normalize ties with Pyongyang, as it did with Hanoi.

The U.S. and Vietnam work together on locating remains of American soldiers missing in action since the war. Last year, North Korea released 55 sets of remains of U.S. soldiers who died in North Korea during or after the Korean War (1950 to 1953).

Separately, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, was set to meet with his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang on Wednesday to prepare for the planned summit.

Nikkei staff writer Kim Jaewon in Seoul and Nikkei deputy politics and economy news editor Andrew Sharp in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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