Students wave Vietnamese and North Korean flags at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship Kindergarten school in Hanoi. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

As Hanoi hosts the second round of peace talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the event could spark life into Vietnam’s moribund relations with Pyongyang, while giving new zest to it’s already lively ties with South Korea.

But while the Vietnamese government is keen to serve as a facilitator in talks towards a groundbreaking peace deal on the Korean peninsula, its disparate relations with the two Korean nations makes it a somewhat unlikely moderator.

Two events in 2009 marked just how far Vietnam’s relations with the two Korean nations have drifted.

That year marked the 45th anniversary of the Vietnam-North Korean Friendship Association, normally a major event between the two nominally socialist countries. That relationship was first forged in the 1950s while battling foreign intervention and wars that divided their nations.

Yet when a group of nine North Korean defectors entered the Danish Embassy in Hanoi seeking asylum in 2009, it exacerbated fraught ties as Pyongyang saw the Vietnamese government as aiding its enemies. Those ties had essentially broken down in the 1980s due to the communist bloc’s Sino-Soviet split, in which Beijing and Moscow clashed over who would dominate the communist world.

Vietnam and South Korean ties upgraded to a “Strategic Cooperative Partnership” in 1989 and South Korean mobile-phone giant Samsung opened a factory in Vietnam, vastly improving bilateral ties that were normalized in 1992.

Today, Samsung has expanded its operations in Vietnam to include dozens of factories, which last year produced one-third of the firm’s global output; Samsung’s goods also accounted for 22% of all Vietnamese exports in 2017.

A Samsung electronics shop under an official propaganda billboard in the center of Hanoi. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

The South Korean investment has made Vietnam into the world’s second-biggest exporter of smartphones, trailing only China. Samsung’s local subsidiary saw its revenue grow to US$58 billion in 2017, making it Vietnam’s largest company.

Despite fervid rumors in South Korean media, it looks unlikely that Kim will visit a Samsung factory during his Vietnam trip.

Vietnam is now the third-largest purchaser of South Korea’s exports, including components for smart phones and other manufactures, while South Korea is Vietnam’s largest foreign investor.

Vietnam is also a key link in Seoul’s “New Southern Policy” that aims to expand trade relations with Southeast Asia to offset dependence on China and the US.

At the same time, Vietnam’s relations with North Korea have been mainly stagnant since 2009.

By all accounts trade is negligible. A few North Korean-run restaurants operate in Vietnamese cities, while the Vietnam-Korea Friendship Kindergarten in Hanoi, a gift from Pyongyang in 1978, still teaches lessons on Pyongyang’s version of Korean history and culture.

Yet, when the North Korean government in 2010 wanted to rename the school after Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding father, Hanoi was against the change. Instead, just two classrooms were named after North Korea’s dynastic leaders.

When North Korea’s leader arrived in Hanoi early on February 26, it marked his first ever state-visit to Vietnam.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) waves after arriving at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Lang Son province, on February 26, 2019, to attend the second US-North Korea summit. Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

His choice of travel by train through China to the Vietnamese border, and then onto Hanoi by car, might be considered a burdensome choice, but symbolically it was the way his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, visited Vietnam back in 1964, just before the height of the Vietnam War.

North Korea had initially provided funds and soldiers to North Vietnamese forces as they fought against the America-backed South Vietnam in what is known locally as the “American War.”

A small cemetery outside Hanoi commemorates the North Koreans who died on Vietnamese soil. Pyongyang deployed fighter pilots to help defend airspace, though rumors persist that some were also in South Vietnam, observing South Korean troops’ operations.

Some 320,000 South Koreans also fought alongside US and South Vietnamese troops in the same conflict, where they won a reputation both for efficiency and brutality.

The historian Balazs Szalontai has written that Pyongyang first opposed the US-North Vietnam peace talks of 1968, arguing at the time that Hanoi shouldn’t lose its fighting momentum.

By the time of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, Szalontai wrote in 2017, Pyongyang had reduced aid to Hanoi, scaled back exports and “went so far as to block a Soviet attempt to re-export a North Korean rice shipment” to North Vietnam.

Relations would deteriorate even further in 1978 when a reunified Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which had been attacking the Vietnamese border for years.

But China maintained its support of Khmer Rouge insurgents throughout the 1980s, refused to acknowledge the new Vietnam-based People’s Republic of Kampuchea and then launched an unsuccessful border incursion in northern Vietnam in early 1979.

A Vietnamese artillery unit resists Chinese invaders along the 230-kilometer border line of the province Lang Son with China, February 23, 1979. Photo: AFP

The train that Kim Jong-un took to cross China to reach Vietnam this week stopped off at Dong Dang, a border town where one of the Chinese incursions was launched.

North Korea, choosing to ally with Beijing, also opposed Vietnam’s actions in Cambodia and severed most of its ties to Hanoi.

This came amid a background of a global carving up of the communist bloc between those nations loyal to China, like North Korea, and those loyal to the then Soviet Union, which included Vietnam. The Sino-Soviet split, which divided the two communist giants in the early 1960’s, would last until the early 1990s.

Throughout, China and North Korea remained adversaries of Vietnam. But even after the Soviet Union crumbled and the factionalism was forgotten, Vietnam never truly re-engaged with North Korea, which was by then economically failing.

Today, however, North Korea and Vietnam appear to want to put those historic differences aside. The US is eager to portray summit host Vietnam as an example of a communist nation with a thriving free-market economy that Pyongyang could replicate if it moves ahead with denuclearization and reform.

Pyongyang might also be open to learning what lessons Hanoi has to teach, analysts say. In the days leading up to the summit, Kim Chang-son, Kim Jong-un’s de facto chief of staff, was reportedly part of a delegation that toured a Samsung factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh province, sparking rumors that the North Korean premier might also take a tour during his visit.

It was unclear at the time of publication if Kim visited Samsung’s production facilities.

It is also believed that Kim met Vietnamese officials before the summit. How much of substance was discussed is questionable since Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party and state president, will be absent on a state visit to Cambodia until February 27.

Young people ride on bicycles displaying the national flags of North Korea, USA and Vietnam to enliven the mood of friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 25, 2019. Photo: AFP Forom via The Yomiuri Shimbun

Despite their past differences, a certain “communist solidarity” still exists between North Korea’s ruling Workers Party of Korea and the Vietnam Communist Party, says Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House for the Asia Pacific region.

“It’s almost like a family relationship in which Vietnam views itself as the hip one who has moved with the times and the DPRK as the weird one that still hasn’t moved on from the 1970s,” he says, referring to North Korea’s national acronym.

“Whenever Vietnamese communist party cadres look at the situation in the DPRK it reminds them how right they were to open up and reform their economy in the 1980s,” Hayton adds, referring to the doi moi (renovation) reforms Hanoi introduced in 1986 that transitioned Vietnam from a command to free market economy.

This week’s summit will also inevitably embolden Vietnam-South Korean ties. By helping to facilitate talks towards reconciliation and, perhaps, denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, Vietnam would win much goodwill from officials in Seoul.

South Korean diplomats were reportedly highly supportive of Hanoi being named the host city for the summit, with Thailand and Singapore, the latter the site of the first Kim-Trump Summit last year, also in contention.

Yet geopolitical factionalism hasn’t completely ceased to be a factor, seen in Kim’s choice of a two-day rickety train journey through China, still his nation’s closest ally, rather than a short flight to reach Hanoi this week.

Portraits of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by Vietnamese artist Tran Lam Binh (C) are displayed at a cafe in Hanoi on February 20, 2019 ahead of the second Trump and Kim summit. Photo AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Vietnam remains the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, where Hanoi lays claim to some of the islets on which Beijing is installing military features.

Yet the relationship between Hanoi and Beijing is often contradictory, as they remain close trading partners and communist cousins.

Whether Vietnam and North Korea will be able to forge a stronger relationship outside the influence of China remains to be seen. Indeed, it appears unlikely that a US-Vietnam axis would be able to entice Pyongyang out of Beijing’s sphere any time soon.

Yet some analysts reckon Kim chose to travel by train though China for this week’s summit not so much to indulge Beijing’s leaders, but rather because he didn’t want again to arrive in a jet borrowed from China emblazoned with the Chinese flag, as he did somewhat embarrassingly when traveling to the Singapore summit.

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