What is Kim really up to at Hanoi summit?

February 26, 2019 12:10
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves to the crowd upon arriving at the Dong Dang railway station on the Vietnamese side of the border with China, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday, after traveling from Pyongyang by his heavily armored train, for his second summit with US President Donald Trump starting on Wednesday. Some may ask: Why did the two leaders choose to meet in Vietnam?

There are two possible reasons. First, Vietnam is not only one of North Korea’s close allies but also has stable relations with China and the United States. Holding the summit in Hanoi can make every major stakeholder happy, not to mention that Vietnamese authorities are ready and able to prevent or quell any embarrassing protests during the occasion.

Second, Vietnam is an excellent model for North Korea when it comes to economic reforms. Visiting Hanoi will allow Kim to have a first-hand knowledge and experience of the “Vietnamese development model”.

Since the last Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was pretty much a publicity stunt and lacked tangible results – not even a definition of denuclearization both parties are trying to arrive at – it is expected that both leaders would try to reach a consensus on destroying nukes on the basis of a joint statement this time around.

As far as North Korea is concerned, if a solid roadmap or timetable on denuclearization could be hammered out by both parties, then Pyongyang would definitely demand the easing or even complete lifting of economic sanctions in order to allow Kim to focus his energy on economic development.

Even if the negotiations on denuclearization will not play out according to what both nations want, at least there would be a good opportunity for the US and North Korea to officially declare the end of the Korean War, thereby paving the path for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Once US sanctions against North Korea are lifted, the next thing Kim would probably do is make an all-out effort to develop his country’s economy, and Vietnam is exactly the role model that could provide useful insights into launching economic reforms.

There are pro-China and pro-US factions within the Vietnamese leadership, but the country has by and large been able to successfully navigate between Beijing and Washington over the years and create its own economic miracle.

As to Kim himself, Vietnam’s biggest appeal is that while the country is still governed by one-party dictatorship, that has not prevented it from successfully developing a diversified economy without having to be worried about the foundation of its communist rule being undermined by opening up its market.

As such, we believe while all eyes will be on the Trump-Kim summit this week, Kim’s interaction with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong may be just as noteworthy and significant.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 25

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal