North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho has had a busy year. As Kim Jong Un sought to step out of his shell and engage in a tentative rapprochement with the country’s traditional enemies, his chief diplomat has visited, among others, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
And it seems that he will now round off the year with a trip to Hanoi.
Speaking at a press briefing last week, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) appeared to confirm that previously-rumored plans would go ahead – though was sketchy on when precisely Ri would be arriving. It now appears that he will arrive on Thursday, in what will be his second high-level meeting with Vietnamese officials this year.
The timing of the trip’s announcement was notable, too. The North Koreans were fresh from toasting their friendship with another erstwhile Cold War comrade, at a bombastic summit between leader Kim Jong Un and the Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel – the two countries’ first in over thirty years.
More comradely greetings came this week, with a visit by the DPRK’s titular head of state Kim Yong Nam to Venezuela and, later, Cuba.
North Korea and Vietnam, of course, also have a relationship rooted in shared ideological and political goals, with Pyongyang having lent support to Hanoi during its own war with a troublesome capitalist southern rival.
These ties, one expert says, originally meant that the DPRK saw Vietnam with as much fondness as Cuba.
“Cooperation between the North Korean and Vietnamese Communist regimes reached its zenith in 1966-1968,” says Balazs Szalontai, a historian at Korea University who has written about the Hanoi-Pyongyang relationship – and how it later soured – for NK News.
“The DPRK leadership regarded [North Vietnam] and Cuba as its closest allies, preferring these small but militantly anti-American states over both China and the USSR.”
But this friendship waned as the war dragged on, Szalontai explains, with relations further dimming as Pyongyang backed Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Hanoi worked to improve relations with, and build economic ties to, South Korea and the United States.
“Since the 1990s, South Korean-Vietnamese economic cooperation increasingly overshadowed Vietnamese-DPRK contacts.”
BACK ON TRACK?
Could Ri’s visit represent an attempt to rekindle this old friendship? One expert says it may be linked to more broader regional considerations – and attempt to improve ties with ASEAN members following the diplomatic disaster that was the Kim Jong Nam killing in Malaysia last year.
That case, it’s worth remembering, purportedly involved a Vietnamese citizen, and Doan Thi Huong’s trial is ongoing.
Hanoi “reacted very strongly to that” incident, says Andray Abrahamian, North Korea expert and current Koret Fellow at Stanford University’s Asia–Pacific Research Center. “They effectively downsized the DPRK embassy in Hanoi by refusing visas to diplomats as well as expelling or not renewing visas for North Koreans in the tech sector who’d been working in Vietnam.”
“Pyongyang is on a fence-mending campaign across the region right now,” he argues.
“You’ve seen this fence-mending most dramatically with Pyongyang’s most important partner, Beijing, but it is incumbent upon them to fix relations with Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, which have all suffered following the killing of Kim Jong Nam.”
“Since the 1990s, South Korean-Vietnamese economic cooperation increasingly overshadowed Vietnamese-DPRK contacts.”
This gulf between regional powers and Pyongyang also grew last year as U.S. policymakers sought to deepen Pyongyang’s economic isolation amid the much-publicized campaign of “maximum pressure and sanctions.”
Keenly aware of the longstanding ties between ASEAN member states and North Korea – and the often loose regional implementation of international sanctions against Pyongyang – American diplomats expended significant energy in 2017 convincing them to get on board with that campaign.
And, even amid a diplomatic rapprochement between Pyongyang and Washington, the U.S. has been keen to maintain that pressure – with Vice President Mike Pence earlier in the month thanking Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for his support “for the pressure campaign on N. Korea.”
“We have seen sanctions enforcement increase significantly in the banking system in Southeast Asia post-Summit,” says Geoffrey See, founder of the Choson Exchange NGO.
“The U.S. has requested that Southeast Asia remain vigilant of any DPRK interaction and has made several visits to the region to ensure intensified pressure post-Summit.”
This, as well as broader considerations about keeping the U.S. onside as a bulwark against China, Vietnam’s traditional foe in the region, may make Hanoi reluctant to jump into bed with Pyongyang just yet.
“The relationship with North Korea is more about tradition than anything”
“Emergent countries like Vietnam are still to an extent dependent – economically and politically – on influential powers in the region,” says Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst focusing on North Korea. “How and with whom they align could plot the trajectory of their international reputation and economic development opportunities.”
“For a nation to make a hasty move when things still remain uncertain on the next steps with North Korea could have long-lasting effects on its own prosperity.”
Economic ties with Seoul, Stanford’s Abrahamian adds, prove a much more lucrative relationship for Hanoi.
“Vietnam’s biggest single investor is South Korea and Hanoi also wants to keep relations with the Washington positive, hoping that the United States sticks around the region to help balance China,” he says.
“Those relationships are priorities for Hanoi… the relationship with North Korea is more about tradition than anything.”
But those fears may be unfounded, Choson Exchange’s See argues, saying that both the U.S. and South Korea would stand to benefit from a closer North Korea-Vietnam relationship.
“Both the U.S. and South Korea have encouraged Pyongyang to look at Vietnam,” he explains. “For the U.S., it’s the promise of economic prosperity and a new relationship between both countries they are using to entice North Korea to embark on a path of denuclearization: something Vietnam provides a significant backdrop for.”
“For South Korea, they want the DPRK to consider an economic reform process similar to Vietnam’s doi moi.”
IT’S THE ECONOMY, COMRADE
Mention Vietnam and North Korea in the same breath and references to doi moi – Hanoi’s program of broad economic liberalization in the 1980s – are likely to come up.
That model, which saw Hanoi liberalize its economy while retaining one-party rule, has long been reportedly attractive to North Korean policymakers: the late leader Kim Jong Il was in 2007 said to have expressed interest in pursuing a similar model of reform and opening up.
The comparison has re-emerged this year, particularly as talks of denuclearization have sparked lofty talk of what North Korea’s economy could achieve if sanctions were relaxed.
June saw South Korean media report that Kim Jong Un, during private conversations with President Moon Jae-in, had expressed an interest in a “Vietnam-like” program of economic reforms.
It’s an idea, too, that U.S. negotiators have been keen to pitch to North Korean policymakers as a model for how a country can step out of economic isolation: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July said Pyongyang could learn from Hanoi’s economic “miracle” and improved ties with Washington.
Choson Exchange’s See agrees: his organization set up an office in Vietnam to conduct “economic policy, legal and entrepreneurship training” for North Koreans in 2014.
“We believe there are still many lessons they can learn from Vietnam that will help them avoid costly mistakes, and will continue to bring Koreans to Vietnam to learn,” he says.
Skepticism abounds, however, about how feasible such a model would be for North Korea. Former DPRK diplomat Thae Yong-ho, for example, said earlier in the year that the DPRK would be unlikely to risk the political liberalization that such a transformation would require – instead pursuing the limited development of the domestic tourism industry.
Abrahamian agrees, arguing that any North Korean doi moi would have to involve reforms that Pyongyang may not be prepared for just yet.
“Pyongyang could learn plenty from Vietnam, but at the end of the day, the North Koreans will have to take next steps on codifying rules about property and providing greater ease of communication with the outside world,” he says.
“These are sensitive matters.”
“There are many things that the North Koreans will likely want to discuss with their Vietnamese counterparts”
That said, one expert says, the Vietnamese could offer North Korea some important advice on managing the tricky transition from a state-planned economy to a market-oriented one.
“There are many things that the North Koreans will likely want to discuss with their Vietnamese counterparts about changes that have occurred there in the last 30 years,” says Peter Ward, an NK Pro analyst focusing on the DPRK economy.
“Likely top of the docket will be managing and improving relations with international investors,” he continues. “Creating attractive, lucrative investment opportunities through appropriate policy incentives, especially in SEZs, but also building long-term partnerships based on trust and mutual advantage.”
“In addition, the issue of economic incentives, food security, and property rights are all known to Vietnamese policy makers. Discussions about such issues could be very fruitful.”
North Korean interest in the Vietnamese model may also be driven by more realistic considerations, another expert argues.
“The thing is, there aren’t many models out there for North Korea to take into account,” says Huong Le Thu, a Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the author of a recent piece for the Asan Forum on the potential for doi moi with DPRK characteristics. “Vietnam might be the closest it has.”
This, Huong says, could give Hanoi an edge as a mediator “if it wants to be.”
“For Vietnam it would be of course flattering if North Korea follows its model,” she says. “I would add to its Party’s prestige, in a way too. But this needs to be a diplomatically skillful act. Vietnam is improving its relationship with the U.S. and wouldn’t want to risk it.”
There’s also a chance that Pyongyang’s interest has shifted to other regional models. A day before his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, Kim Jong Un took a surprise night-time tour of Singapore’s luxurious downtown districts.
The DPRK leader was impressed, with ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun the following day reporting that Kim “plans to learn much from [Singapore] and their amazing knowledge and experience.”
“There aren’t many models out there for North Korea to take into account”
The Singaporean way, after all, may feel closer to home for Kim: the “developmental dictatorship” model is widely credited with facilitating South Korea’s economic boom in the 1970s.
“North Korea has generally looked towards developed countries like Singapore and Switzerland as economic role models, and has mentioned their interest in these places publicly,” says Choson Exchange’s Geoffrey See.
“The different political and economic circumstances for DPRK will require them to develop their own development approach.”
THE BIG MEETING
2018’s reduction in tensions between North Korea and the international community have given Kim Jong Un room to breathe, allowing Pyongyang space to rebuild ties with erstwhile allies alienated by the country’s rapid expansion of nuclear and missile testing in the past few years.
“This door that has been opened allows the Kim regime to strengthen and create diplomatic and economic relations with countries,” says Kim, the former CIA analyst. “This, by extension, can help feed into actualizing the economic portion of the regime’s byungjin line.”
So what to expect when Ri’s plane touches down in Hanoi in the coming days, and why has Pyongyang sought to send its top diplomat to Vietnam now? Economic cooperation will likely loom large, as, too, will steps to rebuild frayed diplomatic and political exchanges.
And, of course, a reaffirmation of comradely historic ties will be front-and-center.
With negotiations with the United States stalling but not dead in the water just yet, North Korea stands to benefit from reminding us that, sometimes, they can get by with a (little) help from old friends.