Karl Marx once wrote that when mastering a new language, people often start by translating it back into a familiar tongue.
As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump arrive in Hanoi this week for a historic second summit, some are suggesting that Pyongyang could master a new capitalist language by imitating host nation and fellow communist state Vietnam.
Trump tweeted earlier this month that North Korea “will become a different kind of Rocket — an Economic one!” if their negotiations are successful and Pyongyang transitions from a hermetic, nuclearized harrier to an economically thriving member of the international community.
The tweet was a thinly veiled reference to Vietnam, one of Asia’s fastest growing economies whose once insular ruling Communist Party is now well-versed and thriving in a globalized free trade system.
The idea that North Korea could potentially replicate Vietnam’s capitalist transition isn’t new, notes Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a defense policy think tank.
Vietnam’s model, first implemented through its market-oriented doi moi reforms of 1986, has been discussed directly between North Korea’s and Vietnam’s leaderships since the 1990s, Thu stated in a recent op-ed.
Indeed, Kim sent a delegation to Hanoi in 2012 that was focused specifically on Vietnam’s reform experience and transition to market-oriented socialism.
To be sure, North Korea shares some similarities to Vietnam on the eve of its doi moi, or renovation, reforms, which kicked off its transition from a hermit to well-integrated member of the international community and global trading order.
For instance, both nations have been sharply criticized by US. In 1983, Washington described the Vietnam as having “the single most repressive government in the world.” That is an epithet now reserved exclusively for North Korea.
Both were at their respective points of history also economically backward. In 1984, Vietnam was among the world’s 20 poorest nations; per capita income was just US$160, according to a US Department of State report at the time.
Inflation often approached 1,000%, while exports were negligible, even though the suzerain Soviet Union purchased them at inflated prices. Hanoi was reliant on imports, again from the Soviet bloc, and its public debt was crippling. It also suffered from sanctions imposed by some Western nations.
For economists outside North Korea – and probably for most experts inside, too – it is almost impossible to accurately gauge the state of the country’s economy, though most agree it’s tanking under new US-led sanctions imposed in 2017.
A recent estimate by a research team of North Koreans working at South Korea’s central bank put its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 at a paltry $32.3 billion.
Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House for the Asia Pacific region and a Vietnam expert, reckons another area where North Korea could today learn from 1980s Vietnam is in de-militarization, an important issue considering that Pyongyang presides over an essentially militaristic nation.
By 1986, Hayton says, Hanoi could not afford to pay most of its soldiers or offer them alternative jobs, causing many of them to become petty traders.
“The official position was that this private business was illegal. But the Communist Party knew this was the only alternative to starvation and so local authorities and police were told to turn a blind eye to petty capitalism,” he said.
Hayton says that “this was really what saved the country,” though it isn’t part of the official history the Party now preaches.
Beyond these superficialities, however, Vietnam in 1986 was significantly different from today’s North Korea, meaning Pyongyang will not easily emulate Hanoi’s reform experience.
“The analogy between North Korea and Vietnam is misguided,” argues Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a US-based global policy think tank.
For starters, North Korea today is being asked to give up a nuclear arsenal with the reputed range to target American cities, he says.
By comparison, in the late 1980s, the international community was merely demanding that Vietnam remove its troops from neighboring Cambodia after it invaded the country in 1979.
More fundamentally, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party is today better viewed as a dictatorial dynasty than a regular Communist Party, Grossman adds.
Indeed, the country has been ruled by the Kim family for three generations and there appears little chance of anyone from outside the family exerting any significant political power.
Kim Jong-un has even assassinated close relatives who he perceived as threats, including his elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam at a Malaysian airport in 2017.
Vietnam’s Communist Party, in comparison, has always been guided by what it calls “democratic centralism.” Since the 1970s, the Party accepted that the four top political positions should never be held by one person at the same time.
This rule was only broken last year when Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong also became state president. Still, senior politicians are limited to two-term limits, after which they are expected to retire from front-line politics if they are over 65-years-old.
As such, since early 1986 there have been six different party chiefs and just as many prime ministers in Vietnam’s authoritarian one-party system.
This power-sharing arrangement not only regularly rejuvenates the Party with fresh young officials, it also ensures one person doesn’t gain dictatorial control. Even the cult of personality designed for Ho Chi Minh, the country’s revolutionary hero and Party’s moral leader, was only created after his death. No other Vietnamese politician has attempted to develop their own cult of personality since.
Just as important as doi moi economic reforms of 1986 was Vietnam’s political transition. Le Duan, the party’s general secretary officially since 1960, passed away just months before the 1986 Party Congress, at which the doi moi reforms were accepted. At the Congress, three of the most senior party grandees – Truong Chinh, Le Duc Tho and Pham Van Dong – also announced their retirement.
Such a political renovation is unthinkable in today’s North Korea. Vietnam’s practice of “democratic centralism” would almost certainly destroy Kim’s Workers’ Party of Korea, which has been guided by the thoughts of a solitary dictator for decades and hasn’t developed a similarly large bureaucracy for devolved decision-making.
While both ruling communist parties have essentially dropped their socialist ideology in recent decades, they have differed markedly on their chosen paths. When Hanoi transitioned from a centrally planned to market economy, it also prioritized improving its international relations to facilitate trade. “More friends and fewer enemies” was a motto devised by the Party as early as 1988.
Today, Vietnam is home to one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with GDP expanding at more than 6% in recent years. Few, if any, nations have ever witnessed such a rapid and successful economic transformation.
Vietnam’s citizens, meanwhile, have warmly embraced the change. A recent survey by FT Confidential Research, a Financial Times research service, found that more than 90% of Vietnamese respondents favored free trade, a considerably higher percentage than in other Southeast Asian nations.
North Korea officially dropped the word “communism” from its constitution in 2009, but replaced it instead with a totalitarian “military first” ideology built around the “supreme leader”, arguably an even more hermetic view of the nation.
In his 2010 book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, North Korea expert Brian Reynolds Myers argues that communism was replaced by something more akin to Japanese fascism, which stressed the racial purity of North Korea’s people and unity in anti-Americanism.
Making yet another volte-face, including by dropping its anti-Americanism ethos, will certainly be difficult though perhaps not impossible judging by the previous Trump-Kim summit. But the historical differences between 1986 Vietnam and today’s North Korea are substantial.
In 1986, Vietnam’s Communist Party-led government could trumpet that in just 40 years it had defeated colonialism, reunified the country, rebuffed foreign incursions, including from the US and China, and even liberated neighboring Cambodia from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The Communist Party’s ability to parade those nationalistic credentials eased somewhat the country’s then deep economic malaise.
Today’s North Korea, by comparison, failed to win the 1950-53 Korean war and hasn’t engaged in any significant military conflict since while the Korean peninsula remains divided between north and south. The economy, meanwhile, is among the world’s most backward with persistent reports over the years of famine and starvation.
Its historical shortcomings might be compensated by the nuclear weapons it has indigenously developed and provocatively points at the US, but denuclearization is apparently the only way its own Vietnam-style renovation can potentially begin.
When Hanoi introduced its free market reforms in 1986, most of its neighbors were just as economically backwards, including China. That, in retrospect, made it easier to catch up.
If North Korea wants to chart a similar economic transition, it finds itself surrounded by China, Japan and South Korea, the world’s second, third and 12th largest economies, respectively, and in a much more sophisticated and cut-throat global economic order.
Applied history is thus clearly lacking among the politicians and analysts who believe North Korea can easily replicate Vietnam’s reform experience. But much depends, including possibly the success of the next Kim-Trump summit, on whether Pyongyang believes such a Vietnam-style transition is possible.