If Korea had a twin country, it would probably be Vietnam.
To start with, both countries are of a roughly similar size (220,000 sq.km for both Koreas and 310,000 sq.km for Vietnam) and have a similar population (76 million for both Koreas, 96 million for Vietnam).
Before the beginning of the Christian era, both experienced a massive inflow of Chinese culture. The Classical Chinese language (known as hanmun in Korean) became the dominant language of administration, high learning, and upper class literature from the very inception of their statehood.
Writing systems for the local vernaculars were eventually invented too, but, to the minor annoyance of local nationalists, this happened at a remarkably late date – and, again, almost simultaneously.
In the 1440s Koreans developed Hangul, while in the 14-15th centuries Vietnamese developed their own logographic system to write down their language (eventually, it was replaced by the Latin script). Nonetheless, until around 1900 in both countries all “respected” literature, as well as official regulations, were still largely compiled in classical Chinese.
The general political situation of both countries was also similar. Their administrations loosely followed Chinese patterns, and the Chinese-style examination system became the major way of selecting candidates for prestigious jobs.
The arrival of the modern age also meant colonial invasion for both Korea and Vietnam
Confucianism, as well as assorted Chinese variants of Buddhism, became major religious and ideological foundations, even though they often co-existed with local cults. In short, Both Vietnam and Korea were integral parts of the East Asian “Sinic world.”
Their foreign policy was more complicated. Far more frequently than modern nationalists are willing to admit, Vietnamese and Korean rulers were willing to accept that the Chinese emperor was the only lawful ruler of the entire Universe and participated in tributary relations, as Confucian doctrine prescribed.
However, in most cases this professed subordination to the “son of heaven” was hardly more than lip service. Both countries managed to spend a millennia within the massive gravitational field of China without being sucked into the Celestial empire.
Admittedly, for Korea such coexistence with a far more powerful neighbor was easier: Vietnam often fought wars with the Chinese dynasties in order to maintain their independence, while in Korea open confrontations with the great neighbor were less common.
Still, independence was preserved, and the “sovereignty” of the Chinese emperor, even when formally recognized, was actually a politically convenient fiction.
The arrival of the modern age also meant colonial invasion in both Korea and Vietnam. Vietnam was taken over by the French, and the Japanese made Korea their colony.
There were major differences, however. The Japanese invested heavily into the development of manufacturing in Korea, while French policy was largely about extraction of resource.
Until 1945, interaction between the two countries was limited, even though they were well aware about of one another’s existence.
There were some sporadic contacts, often of a somewhat unusual nature. In 1127, for example, some members of the Vietnamese royal family, having lost a political struggle, fled to Korea. They not only received asylum there, but also reputedly (the story is disputed) established one of the Korean clans.
In 1226 two Vietnamese princes depose in a coup followed suit, and established themselves in Korea — where their descendants still live.
The demise of independent Vietnam in the late 19th century, however, attracted some attention and was seen by many Korean intellectuals as a warning sign. It did not help, though: as many Koreans feared, their country was also transformed into a colony of an imperial power.
In 1945, however, things changed. Both Vietnam and Korea were divided between the local Communists and their right-wing opponents. In both countries this division led to a war, complicated by a foreign intervention, though in Korea the conflict was much shorter.
Since the division had similar ideological foundations, it is little wonder that two Korean states, as well as two Vietnamese states, soon found themselves deeply integrated into the global Cold War system.
COMRADES IN ARMS
The new situation of division and semi-revolutionary, semi-nationalistic, internal war, created an environment in which North Vietnam and North Korea were unavoidably drawn together.
It also helped that at the initial stages of Sino-Soviet split, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Communist parties in both North Korea and North Vietnam were among a small group of ruling Communist parties which chose to lean towards China, even though later on, from 1965 approximately, both North Vietnam and North Korea chose to remain neutral.
Vietnam switched to a fully pro-Soviet position in 1970-75, when millennia-old suspicions towards China resurfaced, while North Korea skillfully maneuvered between two Communists giants until the demise of the Soviet state in 1991.
The late 1950s and 1960s were a golden time for relations between two countries, and it seems that Korean leaders even felt a measure of envy towards Vietnamese “comrades.”
Much of this was due to how they approach the issue of their countries’ division. In the 1950s, the Vietnamese ignored Soviet “advice” to reconcile themselves with their nation’s division, and began to actively support guerrilla groups operating in the South.
North Koreans, at the time more dependent on Moscow and more skeptical about the revolutionary potential of comrades in the South, followed Moscow’s advice, to their great chagrin.
As a result, when after 1964 the War in Vietnam escalated from a low-intensity conflict to a full-scale international war, the North Koreans were eager to help. At the time North Korea remained an industrially-developed nation, so it was able to provide significant economic assistance to North Vietnam.
But Pyongyang was ready to go one step further and provide actual fighting units — a move that appeared even more logical when it became known that South Korea had decided to send troops to assist South Vietnam.
South Korean forces arrived in Vietnam in early 1965 and remained there until early 1973, when the Paris accord resulted in the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Some 320,000 South Korean soldiers spent time fighting in Vietnam throughout this decade, with the average number of soldiers at any given moment fluctuating between 40-50,000.
Therefore, the North Korean leaders felt that in such a situation they should support their ideological allies – and chose to dispatch some troops to Vietnam as well.
14 North Koreans, mostly pilots, were killed in Vietnam
Pyongyang believed that Vietnam was a useful ally against U.S. imperialism, and also presumably hoped to provide the North Korean army with some battle experience.
Kim Il Sung himself was quite frank about that, when in October 1966 he addressed a group of pilots soon to be sent to Vietnam: “Military should hear the sound of the battle, should smell the gunpowder. The U.S. military tactics changed much during the 13 years which passed since the Armistice, so learn their tactics while fighting them, develop tactics to counter them.”
In late 1966, after consultations with the Vietnamese command, the first North Korean pilots arrived in North Vietnam to fight the Americans, and in December they flew their first sorties.
Their presence remained a secret, so their planes were pained with the Vietnamese insignia. Only in 2000 was their participation in the war finally acknowledged by the Vietnamese side.
The North Korean force, known as ‘Unit Z’, was located near Hanoi and at its height included approximately 90 pilots, as well as technicians and support personnel. Most of the time, though, their numbers were smaller.
The North Koreans initially flew somewhat-outdated MiG-17 fighters, but in 1967-68 they were replaced by the far more advanced MiG-21 supersonic jet fighters. The North Korean unit was withdrawn around 1969. 14 North Koreans, mostly pilots, were killed in Vietnam.
There were also North Korean military engineers’ units, a field hospital, and even PSYOP specialists who targeted South Korean units operating in the south.
The Vietnamese experience had a massive impact on North Korean politics. The prolonged war in Vietnam ended in victory for the communists, and ended with the conquest of the South in 1975. The Vietnamese successes were seen as encouraging, and worthy of emulation.
There are good reasons to suspect that Kim Il Sung’s decision to resume low-profile military operations against South Korea in 1967-68 was driven by Vietnamese successes.
Kim Il Sung, obviously, asked himself why the tactics which worked in Vietnam so well could not be applied in Korea, so around 1967 the North Koreans began to conduct all kind of subversive operations targeting the South.
It was expected that the South Koreans, indoctrinated and encouraged by the North Korean special forces, would follow the example of the Vietnamese peasants and join the guerrilla struggle against Seoul government.
These efforts culminated in an abortive raid by North Korean special forces against the Blue House in 1968, landings of the North Korean commandos at remote parts of the South Korean coast, and frequent armed attacks on the 38th parallel.
However, South Korea proved to be very different from South Vietnam, and attempts to ignite the South Korean revolution with outside sparks failed and were discontinued in 1972.
THE GREAT FALLING-OUT
Around 1970, too, relations between North Korea and North Vietnam began to deteriorate. One of the reasons was the fast growing gap between Vietnam and China: as victory drew closer, Vietnam was increasingly interested in working with the USSR and containing Chinese influence.
Since the late 1970s, relations between Pyongyang and Hanoi have remained rather tense and uneasy
The Kampuchean crisis of 1976-79 also played a role: while the North Koreans sided with the Khmer Rouge and Norodom Sihanouk (allies at the time), Vietnam intervened and deposed Pyongyang’s genocidal friends with armed force.
So, in 1979 a Vietnamese ambassador, while talking in Pyongyang to a Hungarian colleague, said: “At present the DPRK cannot be regarded as a socialist country”– and warned about a possible decision to recall ambassadors.
Things settled down eventually, but since the late 1970s relations between Pyongyang and Hanoi have remained rather tense and uneasy, albeit not openly hostile.
Economic and personal exchanges shrank, and official media in both countries limited themselves to occasional polite references to one another’s existence.
In the late 1980s Vietnam, emulating its traditional nemesis, began to switch to a local version of “developmental dictatorship,” emphasizing the growth of market economy under the watchful guidance of the Communist Party.
North Korea remained staunchly anti-reformist and, worse still, increasingly had nothing to offer the increasingly materialistic and economy-driven Vietnam.
In 1992 South Korea established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and in merely four years became Vietnam’s third largest trade partner. South Korean investment was huge, and in the last 25 years South Korean advertisements have become a common sight in Vietnamese cities.
Personal exchanges are conducted on a grand scale, and even Vietnamese “mail-order brides” have long become a common feature of South Korea’s countryside.
Things are different with North Korea. In 1997 the DPRK refused to pay for a large shipment of the Vietnamese rice, came to be seen as untrustworthy partners, and trade collapsed.
Vietnam does not need North Korea any more
There were some political efforts to improve the situation – in a curious and highly unusual twist, the North Korean government even agreed to let a North Korean woman travel to Vietnam to marry her former Vietnamese boyfriend, once a student in North Korea (he fought hard to win this special privilege for her).
However, in 2004 the Vietnamese government allowed some 460 North Korean refugees, illegally residing in the country, to be flown to Seoul. This decision once again sent relations into a downward spiral.
Now, with a summit in Hanoi and increasing Vietnam-DPRK contact, there will be another attempt to repair relations, but this author is skeptical about possible outcomes.
Vietnam does not need North Korea any more. It is not a promising market, and it cannot become a reliable ally. So, one should expect some niceties, and perhaps some nostalgia about bygone days, but hardly more than this.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Communist Party of Vietnam
If Korea had a twin country, it would probably be Vietnam.To start with, both countries are of a roughly similar size (220,000 sq.km for both Koreas and 310,000 sq.km for Vietnam) and have a similar population (76 million for both Koreas, 96 million for Vietnam).Before the beginning of the Christian era, both experienced a massive inflow of Chinese culture. The Classical Chinese language
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.