Even before DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un completed his highly successful birthday visit to China where he held multiple meetings with Chinese officials including his host Xi Jinping, there were reports indicating that Vietnam is being explored as the location for the next face-to-face meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump. For Kim Jong-un, this decision makes sense from the perspective that it has been widely acknowledged that the DPRK leader is not fond of air travel and thus, the flight to Vietnam would be shorter than last year’s to Singapore. The fact that when visiting Beijing, Kim prefers to take a private train, bears out the fact that a European or western Eurasian location for a Kim-Trump summit might at least for now be out of the question.
But beyond this, Vietnam is highly symbolic of the current Korean peace process for both the right reasons and the wrong ones.
In 1954, a conference was held in Geneva which aimed to unite a Korea which remained militarily divided after three years of gruesome war, whilst also looking to unite a post-French Indochina Vietnam which in 1954 remained divided between communist forces in the north and the pro-American (pro-French) State of Vietnam in the south. While the Geneva conference resulted in no meaningful discussions on Korea, in respect of Vietnam, the conference meant to draw a road map to unification only further entrenched the north-south divide.
After the US escalated its military activities in Vietnam in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin false flag of 1964, America’s involvement in Vietnam became a full scale war which the US and its Southern allies lost, thus resulting in a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam after 1975.
America’s war in Vietnam remains among the most controversial that the US ever fought as mass media allowed the wider world, including an increasingly anti-war US public to see the war crimes committed by foreign troops in the south east Asian nation. And yet, these two nations that ought to have harboured mutual bad will against each other for a century to come, have instead become important partners.
Beginning at the end of the 20th century, the US was eager to exploit lingering Sinophobic sentiments in Vietnam in order to provoke China in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, many in Vietnam who by the end of the 20th century were ironically shifting to a somewhat Chinese style market-socialist economy, saw foreign direct investment from the US as a pragmatic means to elevate the material condition of the people. As such, the reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi which transpired in the post-Cold War era progressed at a remarkably rapid pace.
That being said, 2018 saw a crucial thaw in China-Vietnam relations as all of ASEAN signed up to a new draft for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. In this sense, even Vietnam has now acknowledged that a Duterte/Philippine style process of peaceful engagement with China is a far more productive course of action than a provocative US led antagonism against China.
In spite of a general improvement in relations between Beijing and Hanoi, there are areas of difficulty that remain. 2018 saw a return to Sinophobic demonstrations in Vietnam , thus demonstrating that there is still much to be done in order to foment truly harmonious neighbourly relations.
In respect of DPRK-Vietnam relations, these tended to decline around the same time that modern China-Vietnam relations declined at a rapid pace after 1975. Like China and the US, the DPRK did not recognise the Vietnam installed government in Cambodia after 1979 known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Even after Cambodia’s situation normalised after 1990, Pyongyang and Hanoi still did not have the best of relations. Since 2010, however, DPRK-Vietnam relations have improved, but the countries are still far from partners as they were prior to the mid 1970s.
Against this background, one could see why Vietnam would be a good choice for the next Kim-Trump meeting. Vietnam accomplished in 1975, the unity that remains a goal for Korea. Vietnam has also proved that it can modernise its economy in a comparatively short period of time, thus alluding the fact that a similarly rapid modernisation is possible in the DPRK.
But there is also a deeply negative symbolism at hand when discussing a possible Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam. Vietnam was a country whose period of economic modernisation occurred against the background of strained relations with China. While China’s market-socialism may have inspired Vietnam’s communist leadership to do something similar, in terms of the specific actions steps that Vietnam took since the 1990s – these were done more in spite of than because of China as even now some in Vietnam see their country as a rival to China, even though China’s economy dwarfs that of its neighbour (as it does in respect of the rest of the world apart from the US).
What Kim and Xi made clear this week is that China sees the economic modernisation of the DPRK and the peace process as inseparable phenomena. This feeling is also shared by Moon Jae-in’s peace minded South Korean administration which has redoubled calls for both an accelerated peace process, while Seoul has simultaneously called upon its US ally to moderate sanctions against the DPRK in-line with continued de-nuclearisation.
In so far as this is the case, Korea’s geography and the DPRK’s historic position vis-a-vis China leads one to conclude that Belt and Road connectivity remains the best model on which to economically harmonise the Korean peninsula, while also helping to create a modern win-win partnership between Beijing and Pyongyang that can empower the DPRK in ways that previous post-Cold War economic relations with China could not do.
And yet, by holding a a summit in Vietnam, a country with a long history of strained relations with China as opposed to “friends with all” Singapore, a subtle message by the US would be sent to all sides, but particularly to the DPRK. The message conveys the fact that there is an attempt by some in Washington to try and convince Kim to turn his country into the next Vietnam rather than into the next leading light of developing nations participating in the Belt and Road initiative.
It is true that there is nothing at all wrong with Vietnam’s model of post-Cold War development. It is simply the case that such a model is less suitable for the DPRK than a model which simultaneously embraces Belt and Road while also aiming to one day unite Korea on the Chinese authored One Country – Two Systems model that has successfully seen Hong Kong and Macao form harmonious relations with the Mainland. Thus, neither Vietnam’s economic model nor its model of total north-south assimilation can nor should be extrapolated onto Korea.
It is at this point that one must turn to the analysis of geopolitical scholar Andrew Korybko who shortly after last year’s Singapore summit stated that the US does indeed want to gradually drag the DPRK into its orbit and away from a strong and enduring Chinese partnership. To put it another way, just as the US turned Vietnam from an enemy to a partner, so too might the US want to do the same to the DPRK on a similar model.
The key to the whole matter therefore is Kim Jong-un’s mentality and steadfastness. If as some are saying, that Vietnam has already been agreed as the venue for the next Kim-Trump summit, Kim Jong-un must be mindful to understand the subtext that the US is trying to convey. In so far as this is the case, Kim can and should try to warm relations with Vietnam, but not at the expense of the long term Belt and Road connectivity that his nation requires above all.
Thus far, Kim Jong-un has navigated the new world of open diplomacy for the DPRK with supreme tact and grace. The symbolism of a meeting with an American leader in Vietnam could be his biggest challenge yet.