US President Donald Trump (L) speaks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP)

Like many other Vietnamese, I am pleased that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have chosen Hanoi as the site of their meeting because the two-day summit (beginning on February 27) will enhance Vietnam’s international reputation, encouraging its communist leaders to strive to live up to the reputation that made the country a desirable choice of venue.

More importantly, I am hopeful that, by picking Vietnam as the venue for their second summit, the US and, especially, North Korea will take concrete steps to end their decades-long hostility and make peace with each other – a feat that the US and Vietnam have achieved over the last few decades.

As previously noted, Vietnam was selected not simply because it is a convenient location for Trump and Kim to hold talks on nuclear disarmament and US-North Korea ties in general. It was chosen because it also invokes many analogies, experiences and symbols that are very useful and meaningful for North Korea, the US and their relations. It’s clear that Washington wants North Korea to emulate what Vietnam has done over the last 30 years.

Certainly, Vietnam still trails behind many of its Southeast and East Asian peers in many key aspects, such as GDP per capita, democracy, freedom and transparency. Yet, by and large, the communist-ruled country is in much better shape than it was 30 years ago and is far better off than North Korea is now.

Over the past three decades, the country has enjoyed high economic growth and emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s top trading nations and most attractive destinations for direct foreign investment. As a result, Vietnam’s living standards have improved significantly.

Strong international ties

Externally, it has managed to forge strong ties with almost all countries – democratic and non-democratic alike – and succeeded in sustaining its independence and relevance in a crucial region, where major powers fiercely compete for geopolitical influence and predominance. While seeking to maintain ties with their communist comrades in Beijing, Vietnam’s leaders have also successfully fostered robust cooperation with China’s main rivals, such as India, Japan and, especially, the US – partly to hedge against Beijing’s expansionism in the disputed South China Sea.

What is probably the most attractive aspect for North Korea’s young dictator is that the communist regime in Hanoi has achieved all this without losing its grip on power. In effect, its considerable achievements at home and abroad have, in turn, significantly enhanced the one-party regime’s authority and legitimacy.

Yet, those successes don’t come by chance. Vietnam – or more precisely, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam – has enjoyed economic success, political stability and international respect because it launched major domestic and foreign policy reforms in the late 1980s.

The Doi Moi – a reform and opening-up process that the CPV initiated at its sixth congress in 1986 – and Hanoi’s 1989 withdrawal of its troops from neighboring Cambodia, enabled the then deprived, reclusive, regressive and, to some extent, aggressive country to transform both domestically and internationally.

In his remarks in Hanoi in July 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “One key to Vietnam’s enormous rise over the past few decades was a new engagement with the United States.”

Without a doubt, the Southeast Asian nation’s reconciliation with its former war foe, with whom it normalized ties in 1995, has been a crucial factor behind its transformation.

Given that better ties with the US have been vital for Vietnam’s development, perhaps like many other Vietnamese, I wish our country had mended fences with the US earlier. Had it done so, it would now be richer, freer and stronger.

In his memoir published in 2001, Tran Quang Co, a former Vietnamese diplomat, revealed that shortly after the war ended in 1975, there were talks about the establishment of ties. According to Co and other sources, in 1977, the US’s then-new government under the Democratic president Jimmy Carter took several steps to improve relations with Vietnam and proposed that diplomatic ties quickly be established. But this didn’t happen and a major reason for that was that Vietnam stipulated that the US had to give several billion dollars in postwar reconstruction aid as a condition for the normalization of ties – a demand that the US Congress wasn’t willing to meet.

The former first deputy minister, who died in 2015, said, as a person directly involved in the normalization talks in 1977 in Paris and in New York in 1978, that he was deeply sad because Vietnam had missed the opportunity to strengthen its position in peace in order to focus on national reconstruction after years of war that had resulted in the country being left behind by its regional peers.

It is not always wise to use “counterfactual history” to interpret past events because history, especially Vietnam-US history, is complex, with so many factors and actors in play. But, with hindsight, especially when considering what happened to Vietnam in the 1975-1986 period, often referred to as the “lost decade,” many would understand why Tran Quang Co lamented such a missed opportunity. Indeed, it’s very likely, if not almost certain, that Vietnam would have avoided hardship, isolation, sanctions and many other disasters, including a brief, but deadly, war with China in 1979, had it managed to establish and strengthen ties with the US after the war ended.

On this note, I truly hope that the US and, especially, the Kim regime understand and appreciate the potential benefits of a better relationship and take concrete steps to build it.

The hostility between the US and North Korea, a product of the Cold War, is currently the world’s longest-running standoff. It has lasted more than seven decades. Such pointless, costly and dangerous antagonism should have ceased a long time ago. For North Korea, it is the fundamental reason why it is faced with its current destitution, international isolation and sanctions.

As it has carried on for decades and deepened with time, it’s undoubtedly difficult for Washington and Pyongyang to put an end to the mistrust and hostility. The two sides won’t overcome this unless until they take bold – and controversial – measures

As it has carried on for decades and deepened with time, it’s undoubtedly difficult for Washington and Pyongyang to put an end to the mistrust and hostility. The two sides won’t overcome this unless until they take bold – and controversial – measures.

When president Bill Clinton decided to normalize ties with Vietnam, he encountered opposition from most Republican lawmakers as well as some members of veterans’ groups and families of missing servicemen. In remarks to mark the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries in July 2015, the former US president said it  “was for personal, political and geostrategic reasons one of the most important achievements” of his presidency.

Thanks to his decision, the US now finds in Vietnam a very important partner in the region. Both at the official and public levels, Vietnam is now even more pro-American than the Philippines, the US’s ally. According to Pew Research Center, in 2017, 84% of Vietnamese people had a favorable view of the US – higher than any other country in the world, and only 1% lower than the percentage of Americans who viewed the US favorably.

Currently, Trump’s approach to dealing with North Korea is also questioned and criticized by some, including top Democrats such as Chuck Schumer. In some ways, such skepticism is understandable. Yet, if the US’s relations with Vietnam are any guide, Trump’s attempt to get North Korea denuclearized and foster better ties with Pyongyang through dialogue should be encouraged.

As for North Korea, it should – if not must – respond sincerely and positively to Trump’s friendly overture by taking concrete steps to denuclearize and reform its economy. Hopefully, by getting a first-hand look at a fellow communist country that has successfully opened up, developed its economy, and built strong external relationships, all while the ruling regime held on to power, Kim will finally realize that it is economic development and good ties with the outside world, including the US – rather than nukes and aggression – that will guarantee the survival of his authoritarian regime.

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