“Trump-Kim Summit: Why Vietnam?” by Ha Hoang Hop and Lye Liang Fook

2019/18, 13 February 2019

US President Trump has announced that the second Trump – Kim Summit will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam from 27 to 28 February. Why is Vietnam chosen as the venue?

Hanoi is an acceptable location to both the United States and North Korea. Vietnam has diplomatic relations with both countries which also have their respective embassies in Hanoi.

A great deal of attention has focused on the US-Vietnam dynamics, e.g. how the two countries have evolved from enmity to partnership. From fighting against each other in the Vietnam War, Vietnam and the United States normalized relations by establishing diplomatic ties in 1995, twenty years after the war. In 2000, Bill Clinton became the first US President to visit Vietnam after the war and, 15 years later, in 2015, the United States hosted the first ever visit by Vietnam’s Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Since the end of the war, ties between the two countries has broadened and deepened. Today, with China’s rising clout and assertiveness, there is room for Vietnam and the United States to explore ways to strengthen their relationship.

There is much less publicity on the North Korea-Vietnam relationship. A relatively unnoticed fact is that while US-Vietnam diplomatic ties was disrupted for 20 years in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (from 1975 to 1995), Vietnam’s relations with North Korea remained uninterrupted since ties was established in 1950. President Ho Chi Minh visited Pyongyang in 1957 and North Korean Leader Kim Il-sung reciprocated with a visit to Hanoi in 1958. Kim Il-sung made a further visit to Hanoi in 1964. More significantly, during the Vietnam War, North Korea was a staunch supporter of the North Vietnamese government by providing the latter with hundreds of troops (in the form of anti-aircraft artillery regiments) and pilots (in the form of a fighter squadron) and numerous weapons and ammunition. However, Vietnam-North Korea relations was not always smooth. For instance, in 1968, Pyongyang then under Kim Il-sung, was opposed to Hanoi’s decision to enter the Paris Peace Talks with the United States. However, when Kim Jong-il came into office in 1994, he revised his father’s earlier stance on the Paris Peace Talks, and highly regarded Vietnamese diplomacy in engaging in direct talks with the United States. This policy of direct talks has continued under the present North Korean regime led by Kim Jong-un and seems to have made some headway.

In other words, the path Vietnam has taken, i.e. how it fought tenaciously with the Americans and eventually succeeded in turning around this relationship from sworn enemies to partners by first normalizing relations and then developing ties in various areas and at many levels, offers possible lessons of experience for North Korea.

Another reason why Vietnam is an amenable location for North Korea is the former’s experience in economic development. Apart from China which launched its open door and reform policy in 1978, Vietnam also embarked on economic renovation or doi moi in 1986 under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Over the past 30 years, it would not have been lost on the North Korean leadership that Vietnam has made notable strides in economic development with the VCP still at the apex of power. In fact, during the April 2018 summit between North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the former was reported to have told Moon that he preferred the Vietnam-styled opening over the Chinese model because the Vietnamese model offered greater liberalization than China and was based on an amicable relationship with the United States.

In addition, Vietnam is considered a “friendly” country to North Korea even after Vietnam established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992. Vietnam lent its support to North Korea to become a member of the ARF in 2000. Vietnam also played host to several meetings on reconciliation between North Korea and Japan in the late 1990s and 2000s. Vietnam further willingly shared its views and ideas with North Korea on how to build ties with South Korea, and later encouraged both sides on the Korean Peninsula to secure peace first.

As a member of the international community, Vietnam further supports North Korea’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, viewing it as a key pillar in promoting peace and development in Asia.

Vietnam’s hosting of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang in November 2017, and its earlier hosting of the ASEAN and East Asia Summits, and soon, its hosting of the forthcoming Trump-Kim Summit re-affirms the important contribution of Vietnam to regional peace and development.

Dr Ha Hoang Hop is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute while Mr Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the same institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.