North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Kim Jong Un is expected to make a state visit to Vietnam just before or after his second summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi on February 27-28. If he does so, the 35-year-old ruler will become the first North Korean leader to tour the Southeast Asian country since 1964 when Kim Il Sung, the late founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Kim’s grandfather, visited the Vietnamese capital.

The mere fact that a North Korean leader didn’t visit Vietnam, a fellow communist nation, in more than half a century shows how isolated the Hermit Kingdom is internationally. By contrast, though it remains an authoritarian one-party state, Vietnam is now an internationally accepted player, with good and strong ties with various countries and international institutions. This is one of the many key areas that Kim can or should learn from his communist comrades in Hanoi.

In remarks in Vietnam last July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out that “except for relations with a handful of communist nations, Vietnam [in the early 1980s] was isolated from the world.”

Indeed, until the late 1980s, the nation was by and large isolated on the international stage, and this was due to its intervention in Cambodia and its hostilities with other countries, including the United States. Its withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989 dramatically improved its international reputation, position and relations.

In 1994, the US lifted its embargo on Vietnam and a year later normalized ties with its former war enemy. Other countries, including Vietnam’s neighbors, likewise established of re-established ties with Hanoi in the early 1990s. The country also joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1998 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007.

What’s notable is that, with its policy of diversifying and multilateralizing its external relations, Vietnam has managed to maintain good ties with almost all countries – democratic and non-democratic alike. What’s more, it has succeeded in retaining its independence and relevance in a crucial region, where major powers, notably the US and China, fiercely compete for geopolitical influence and predominance.

What’s notable is that, with its policy of diversifying and multilateralizing its external relations, Vietnam has managed to maintain good ties with almost all countries – democratic and non-democratic alike

Though it may boast that it has nuclear power, North Korea relies heavily on China economically, politically and diplomatically. The fact that Kim Jong Un had to travel to China four times to seek advice and guidance from Beijing before his nuclear talks with South Korea and the US is a testimony to such an unhealthy over-dependence.

Yet while Hanoi’s 1989 withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia was a defining factor, its shift in foreign policy began in 1986 when at its sixth national congress, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) embarked on doi moi – a renovation policy aimed at reforming the country’s then ruinous economy and opening up the country to the outside world.

North Korea’s aggression toward the US and its neighbors, such as South Korea and Japan, is the main reason behind its current isolation and sanctions. To come out of all this and become an acceptable state, the reclusive, regressive and aggressive state has no choice but to shift focus from nuclear enhancement to economic development.

As illustrated by Vietnam’s experience, such a strategic shift is, in many respects, feasible and advisable.

Politically, the ruling CPV’s primary concern was – and still is – its survival and security. By deciding to pursue doi moi at a time when communist regimes in the Soviet Union and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe were faced with upheaval and collapse, the CPV not only secured its survival but also strengthened its legitimacy.

Economic development remains one – if not the most – important source of the one-party regime’s legitimacy. Without remarkable economic growth, which is the third largest in Asia (after China and India) over the past decades, the Vietnamese would now have been faced with hardship and, consequently, probably revolted against the regime. Yet, though there is always some discontent and dissent among the public toward certain domestic and foreign policies or the overall direction of their country, the Vietnamese people seem quite pleased with their living standards. In any case, the 93-million-people country is now in a much better shape than it was about three decades ago.

Internationally, the communist regime is also accepted. In 2015, Nguyen Phu Trong, who now doubles as state president, became the first CPV chief to travel to the White House, and during that historic trip, the two former arch-enemies issued a Joint Vision Statement, in which they pledged to respect “each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

In his remarks in Hanoi last year, Pompeo rightly recalled: “The leaders of Vietnam realized their country could reform, it could open up and build relationships, without threatening the country’s sovereignty, its independence, and its form of government,” adding: “One key to Vietnam’s enormous rise over the past few decades was a new engagement with the [US].”

After praising Vietnam’s communist leaders, the US top diplomat directly urged Kim Jong Un to replicate Vietnam’s path in overcoming past hostilities with the US and achieving “the once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership [the US has] with Vietnam today.”

When Pompeo made such an appeal, he met with some reservations. Some suggested that the country that North Korea should follow is its southern neighbor, not Vietnam, because “far more than Vietnam, the South has turned into a powerhouse built on free enterprise.” By contrast, some others were less pessimistic, arguing that the totalitarian country “would find Vietnam’s road to modernization hard going.”

It’s true that the ideal model for North Korea to imitate is the South or other democratic and advanced countries, not Vietnam, because the latter still lags far behind many of its regional peers in several important areas. However, the prospect of the hereditary and dictatorial regime in Pyongyang taking radical steps to liberalize the country both economically and politically is inconceivable.

It’s also true that, in numerous respects, North Korea of 2019 is different from Vietnam of the 1980s. That said, there are also many relevant parallels between the current North Korea and the Vietnam of that period, and the latter could certainly provide the former with valuable experience should it wish to come out of isolation, sanctions and destitution.

Of the countries that may offer North Korea some experience in terms of economic development, political stability and foreign policy, Vietnam is probably the most suitable and realistic one.

If Kim Jong Un followed the CPV’s path, the US and other countries would certainly welcome it. This is simply because the young tyrant won’t abandon his nuclear weapons unless and until he realizes that there is a (better) alternative for him to secure his regime’s survival, develop his country, diversify its relations and maintain its independence. Vietnam offers such an alternative.

That Kim agreed to meet with Trump in Hanoi for crucial talks, whose outcome could radically determine his fate and dynasty as well as the future of his 25.5-million-people country, suggests that he may emulate Vietnam’s model.

There are other signs that he is willing to lead his country in that direction. In December, DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho made a four-day trip to Vietnam, which South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency described as a fact-finding mission to learn about Hanoi’s doi moi.

During his recent three-day trip to Pyongyang, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said his country “is ready to share its experience in national construction, socio-economic development and international integration with the DPRK.”

After all, as Kim may recognize, it is economic development and good ties with the outside world – rather than nukes and aggression – that guarantee the survival of an authoritarian, one-party or one-man-rule regime. The stability of the communist regime in Hanoi contrasted with the tragedy of both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 may help him reach a conclusion.

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