Vietnam: A Role Model for North Korea

In every summit meeting between world leaders, the visuals are important. Not only the smiles and handshakes, but the place where they meet can also play a role. It is noteworthy that many summits are named not after the principals or the primary issues discussed, but after the location where it was held. Thus have such otherwise obscure place names as Appomattox, Yalta, Potsdam, Dumbarton Oaks, and Glassboro found their way into the history books.

This is especially true in the case of the second summit of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam.

While Hanoi isn’t so obscure — that name was painfully familiar to Americans during the Vietnam War — the choice of that city for this week’s talks is ironic.

The notion that Hanoi might someday be the venue of a peacemaking summit, with the Vietnamese in the role of American ally and host, was unthinkable not so many years ago. The peace agreement that ended U.S. military involvement in Indochina came after protracted and bitter negotiations, and was followed not by free and fair elections in the South, but by a military invasion from the North. The hard bargaining for the return of POWs and location of those missing in action, the plight of the “boat people” — those desperate refugees from a cruel communist conquest — and the “re-education camps” for the politically unreliable, constituted an ignominious postscript to the suffering of decades.

And once North Vietnam had imposed its totalitarian system on the South, along with its anti-American, anti-capitalist propaganda, it seemed extremely unlikely that the country would ever harbor anything other than hatred toward the United States.

Yet, here we are 44 years later, and Vietnam is the friendly host of a U.S.-North Korean peace summit.

The message of choosing Vietnam was made explicit by State Department spokesman Robert Palladino, as he told a news briefing that U.S.-Vietnamese history “reflects the possibility for peace and prosperity.”

“We moved past conflict and division towards the thriving partnership we enjoy today,” Palladino said. Or, as Eugene Matthews, a law school graduate living in Hanoi since 1990, put it in Smithsonian Magazine, today Vietnam is “a country, not a war.”

And Vietnam is not the same country it was at war’s end in 1975. During the intervening years, Vietnam liberalized its economy, allowing capitalist elements to take hold, and the material benefits of capitalism became available to a population yearning for escape from poverty.

“Prosperity and security abound. When the leaders in Hanoi go to bed at night, the notion of conflict with America is the last thing on their minds,” Secretary of State Pompeo said on a visit to Vietnam last year before addressing Kim: “It can be your miracle in North Korea as well.”

Hanoi has become the model for an Asian dictatorship rehabilitated in a way that makes it acceptable to the West. The leadership was described as “ardently capitalist communists” by The Economist in a 2008 article.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the scars of a war that left 3 million Vietnamese dead have completely healed. The Vietnamese have not forgotten.

Just four years ago, on Liberation Day, propaganda posters and billboards marking expulsion of the Americans and the unification of North and South and a huge military parade marked the event. Today, the capital of the South, once known to the world as Saigon, goes by the name Ho Chi Minh City, after the communist leader who led the revolution and who was the leader of North Vietnam during the war itself.

Despite liberalization, the country is officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a tightly-controlled one-party system. Pleasant photo-ops notwithstanding, politically, the country continues to live in the communist past. Prosperity may have come, but freedom hasn’t. In particular, the war that tore the country apart is not open to free discussion.

A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Vietnam the sixth-most-censored country in the world, worse than China, Iran and Cuba.

But, in a backhanded way, this grim reality may also serve as an incentive to the North Korean leaders to make their own concessions. They fear the consequences of loosening their grip on society, and of giving up the vaunted weapons which have been their key to national pride and power.

Having the summit in Hanoi conveys the implicit message that Pyongyang can secure a better life for its people without surrendering its hard rule.

We can hope for progress toward denuclearization and peace on the peninsula; but the expectations have to be realistic. Vietnam can serve as a role model for North Korea — in more ways than one.