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Is the Trump–Kim meeting in Hanoi more about economic development than denuclearisation?

Posted By on February 12, 2019 @ 14:30

The choice of venue for the second meeting [1] between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, scheduled for 27–28 February 2019, is about more than convenience of distance, familiarity (Trump visited Vietnam in 2017) and diplomatic facilities.

Vietnam is one of a handful of countries that host the diplomatic missions of both the United States and North Korea. The country’s post-war journey has symbolic significance and sends an important message about what the summit is about—showing Pyongyang a possible way forward.

Hanoi and Pyongyang used to have a lot in common. They’re both on the periphery of China and were determined to unify their countries under the ideology they chose—communism—and against a shared enemy—the United States. But the separate paths they took in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split at the height of the Cold War have resulted in wholly different political destinies.

Pyongyang, as a result of siding with China, supported the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. North Korea became openly hostile to Vietnam in the late 1970s when tensions grew between the Southeast Asian neighbours, and eventually Hanoi intervened in Cambodia. The end of the Cold War drove the two nations even further apart, accentuating the differences in their political regimes, economic development and strategic orientations.

While a unified Vietnam normalised its diplomatic relations with both China and the US, and established positive relations with the Republic of Korea, the DPRK remained isolated and resistant to external influence. Hanoi overcame sanctions and diplomatic isolation through persistent and proactive efforts directed by the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV’s) policy reforms initiated in the late 1980s.

Vietnam has since emerged as a star economic performer in East Asia, recording consistently high GDP growth over the past couple of decades. No longer considered a ‘rogue state’, it has successfully negotiated with its formerly hostile, anti-communist neighbours in Southeast Asia and become one of the most significant strategic partners [2] in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beyond the expectations about what the Hanoi summit can actually deliver for the denuclearisation process, we also need to think about a longer-term question: What next? In a hope of encouraging Pyongyang’s self-search for ‘normalisation’, should the US and its allies examine the case for easing sanctions?

The experience of Vietnam, which has preserved its communist regime (based on collective leadership [3], rather than a family dynasty as is the case with North Korea), points to a possible way ahead. For Washington, Hanoi is also the best poster-child for how a former enemy can transform into an increasingly indispensable security partner.

The idea that there could be a ‘Vietnam model’ for North Korea is not new. South Korea has allegedly been harbouring hopes [4] that Vietnam could one day help open up the DPRK. Despite the souring of bilateral ties in the 1970s, Hanoi never completely shut down assistance to North Korea. The diplomatic missions in both countries remained active.

Since 2010, Hanoi has been a source of training and technology for North Korea in areas such as agriculture, fishery, energy, hydropower, horticulture and manufacturing. It also played a supportive role in securing the admission of North Korea into the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2000.

The Trump administration seems to have embraced the idea [5] of a ‘Vietnam model’, touting the benefits of economic reforms to Kim’s government. But such a pathway is a long shot, given the very different [6] circumstances between the former Vietnam (which never possessed a nuclear weapons capability) and today’s North Korea. But it’s probably the best example we have.

Beyond the already very detailed discussion [7] on the possibility of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, there’s a parallel dialogue in peace talks with Pyongyang. While the first requires the international community to consistently support maximum pressure [8] on Kim to denuclearise, the second offers the prospect of engagement: the abandonment of nuclear ambitions in return for an economic carrot.

Vietnam’s active foreign policy [9] dictates that it should be a responsible actor in the rules-based international system. Hanoi has openly criticised Kim’s nuclear activities as ‘a grave violation [10] of UN Security Council resolutions’ and Hanoi hopes to secure a non-permanent seat in the Security Council in 2020–21.

But it also sees an opportunity to play a stronger diplomatic role, should there be a breakthrough declaration of a formal end to the Korean War. Imagine the historical significance of a Hanoi peace declaration. Not only would Vietnam showcase its diplomatic ability, but it would also highlight the importance of providing a neutral ground—following Singapore’s example—for difficult negotiations to take place.

Southeast Asia hopes this could be a beginning of a continuous diplomatic process, just like the evolution of ASEAN in the 1960s that contributed to the cessation of the multiple conflicts that defined the region at the time.

Hanoi’s willingness to host [11] the meeting is also linked to its regime’s need for validation. The attention on the successes of the Doi Moi reforms in transforming the country and elevating its international position is certainly shoring up the CPV’s legitimacy. Washington’s recognition of Vietnam’s economic achievement is reassuring for party leaders in Hanoi.

Hosting a successful summit will gain Hanoi credits both in the eyes of both Washington (the US is Vietnam’s largest export market) and South Korea (Vietnam’s largest investor, and one of its principal aid donors and sources of tourism). Another plus, if Kim is in the mood, is the potential for warming up economic ties between Hanoi and Pyongyang and maybe allowing better access for Vietnam’s goods and services into the DPRK.

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URLs in this post:

[1] venue for the second meeting: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/02/05/donald-trump-meet-north-koreas-kim-jong-un-vietnam/2771003002/

[2] significant strategic partners: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/us-vietnam-relations-under-president-trump

[3] collective leadership: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/riptides-in-vietnams-top-leadership/

[4] harbouring hopes: https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Transcipt_Luncheon_Speech_WEB.pdf

[5] embraced the idea: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/07/283892.htm

[6] very different: https://www.ft.com/content/9a5a7902-836d-11e8-9199-c2a4754b5a0e

[7] detailed discussion: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/north-korea-and-america%E2%80%99s-second-summit-we-asked-76-experts-predict-results-43787

[8] maximum pressure: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2018-12-04/can-us-reinstate-maximum-pressure-north-korea

[9] Vietnam’s active foreign policy: https://www.nbr.org/publication/vietnams-persistent-foreign-policy-dilemma-caught-between-self-reliance-and-proactive-integration/

[10] a grave violation: https://nguyentandung.org/phan-ung-cua-viet-nam-ve-viec-trieu-tien-phong-ten-lua-dan-dao.html?_sm_au_=iVVtLRNj6HS0t7f6

[11] willingness to host: https://vnexpress.net/the-gioi/bo-ngoai-giao-hoan-nghenh-thuong-dinh-my-trieu-dien-ra-tai-viet-nam-3878435.html

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