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North Korea would find Vietnam’s road to modernisation hard going

By Dr Huong Le Thu

Hanoi’s reintegration was the result of following the post-cold war order, not defying it

Most of the debate around the thawing of relations between the US and North Korea has focused on denuclearisation. But the longer-term, more challenging issue is how best to “normalise” Pyongyang’s economy. Last weekend, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, suggested that North Korea should emulate Vietnam, a view that is also gaining currency on the Korean peninsula.

Hanoi’s relative success in modernising its economy and restoring diplomatic relations after a period of isolation seems particularly apt. It has managed to rejoin the broader international community without jeopardising Communist party control. (China’s example is less relevant because of its sheer size.)

Vietnam is now a booming economic and political power, with Asia’s third-highest gross domestic product growth rate — below China and India — for much of the past decade. But for decades after the Communist victory in 1975, the country was seen as a “rogue state” and isolated by the west through sanctions and severed diplomatic ties. After relations soured with China and the Soviet Union collapsed, the country’s leadership was forced to rethink. Inspired by China’s market reforms and perestroika in the Soviet Union, Vietnam came up with its own version: Doi Moi, or renovation, which is also referred to as “opening doors”. The Doi Moi reforms were not perfect and there remain issues with state-owned enterprises, but they did bear fruit.

This may sound like a good model for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who spent a large chunk of his life and education abroad. But there are significant differences that present obstacles for Pyongyang.

Vietnam’s reintegration with the world was a result of it complying with the post-cold war order, not defying it. Although Vietnam’s communists remained in charge, the country became a supporter of international law and norms. North Korea’s intentions remain unclear, but the prospects of its compliance with the international system of arms control are remote — nuclear weapons remain its strongest bargaining chip.

Vietnam never posed a nuclear threat: it was exhausted by decades of bloodshed and impoverished by poorly executed collectivisation and land reforms. Once the fall of the Soviet Union ended fears about the inexorable spread of communism, Vietnam no longer seemed frightening.

Vietnam’s period of isolation was also shorter — less than two decades rather than more than six — and less absolute than North Korea’s. Although it was frozen out by the west, it participated in educational and scientific exchange with the eastern bloc. That has made it easier for Vietnam’s economy to catch up. The North Korean people have been locked in a repressive, ideological time capsule with much more restricted exchanges with the external world.

The timing also matters. Hanoi normalised ties with China, the US and other Asian nations and caught a wave of globalisation. It joined the World Trade Organization and other international groups and benefited from growing economic integration and expanding international trade.

North Korea meanwhile would open up amid a growing backlash against globalisation. The US is withdrawing from existing commitments and both it and the EU are focused on internal priorities.

Finally, there is the issue of reunification. The two Koreas have been separated for much longer than Vietnam ever was, and they are still in a de facto state of war and lingering hostility. While Mr Kim seems to be much less focused on ideology than his father and grandfather, his interests must lie in regime preservation. The Vietnam path would be harder to follow than its proponents acknowledge. Still, Mr Kim might seek to attempt the near impossible. After all, he has played his hand quite remarkably thus far.

Originally published by: The Financial Times on 11 Jul 2018