By Juni Kim
During the State of the Union address on February 5, U.S. President Donald Trump formally announced that the second U.S.-North Korea summit would take place in Vietnam on February 27th and 28th. He remarked, “We continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula… Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is a good one.” Shortly after the announcement, Kim Jong-un was quoted saying, “Vietnam and the United States used to point a gun and knife at each other, but now they are friends. We expect Vietnam to be the best venue to host the event for North Korea and the United States to make history.”
Like Singapore which hosted last year’s summit, Vietnam is one of only a handful of countries that maintain friendly relations with both the United States and North Korea. The countries also share parallel historical experiences, including the partition of the national territory, communist origins, and hostilities with the United States. Despite these similarities, the diverging paths the two communist countries took in later years illustrate why Hanoi will be an important backdrop for the second U.S.-North Korea summit.
North Korea and Vietnam first established diplomatic relations in 1950. The self-proclaimed Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was then still fighting a war of independence against France. After the partitioning of Vietnam at the war’s conclusion in 1954, communist revolutionary and DRV (North Vietnam) leader Ho Chi Minh visited North Korea in 1957 and met with North Korea’s leader and founder Kim Il-sung. Kim made a reciprocal visit to Hanoi in 1958, and later held a second summit with Ho Chi Minh in 1964. The Communist Party of Vietnam celebrated the 60th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s first visit last year with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in attendance.
During the brutal war between North and South Vietnam that lasted nearly two decades from 1955 to 1975, both Koreas played an instrumental role in providing military support for their respective ideological camps. In a 1965 discussion with a Chinese delegation to North Korea, Kim Il Sung vehemently stated, “We are supporting Vietnam as if it were our own war… The Korean People will always struggle with China and Vietnam on a common front.” While South Korea’s material and personnel support to South Vietnam outpaced North Korea’s assistance to North Vietnam, Kim Il-sung proudly referred to his contributed troops to the conflict as “volunteers,” a call back to Chinese troops who participated in the Korean War.
However, bilateral relations frayed in the 1970s following disputes over military aid and trade. Tensions between the two countries worsened after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 as Kim Il-sung maintained a close relationship with exiled Cambodian royal leader Norodom Sihanouk. North Korea withdrew its ambassador to Vietnam during this period, and the two countries did not exchange ambassadors until 1984.
The relationship suffered another major blow when South Korea and Vietnam normalized relations in 1992. The economic rise of Vietnam in the past decade has only further bolstered its relationship with South Korea. Hanoi embarked on a radical economic transformation in 1986 called “Doi Moi,” and South Korea’s own economic position in the region made it a natural trading partner. In 2017, South Korea was Vietnam’s fourth largest trading partner and second largest foreign investor for the year 2018.
Kim Jong-un has expressed admiration for both Vietnam’s economic achievements and diplomatic deftness in becoming partners with the United States. During the first of three inter-Korean summits last year, Kim Jong-un reportedly told South Korea President Moon Jae-in that he hoped North Korea would follow the Vietnam model of undertaking economic reform while maintaining one-party rule. According to Bradley Babson, a member of the Korea Economic Institute of America’s advisory council, North Korea has demonstrated a greater willingness to “experiment with reforms” under Kim Jong-un then in years past. Some experts however doubt the feasibility of North Korea following this model. Unlike North Korea, Vietnam does not have the same cult-of-personality rule that has been a cornerstone to the Kim family’s dynastic grip on power, and reform may open up new risks that could endanger Kim’s rule.
Despite some bumps along the road in past years, the upcoming summit in Hanoi will open up a new chapter in the two countries’ relationship. No North Korea leader has visited Vietnam since 1964, which would make Kim Jong-un’s visit the first in over 50 years. Whether Kim Jong-un decides to take his country down the path Vietnam traveled decades ago remains to be seen, but he will soon get a first-hand look at the possibility of robust economic growth and single-party rule coexisting in a country.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Picture from Hankyoreh Newspaper. Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung’s meeting in Pyongyang in 1957.