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Why is Trump meeting Kim in Vietnam?

Ate Hoekstra
February 6, 2019

In his State of the Union address, the US president announced he would meet the North Korean leader in Vietnam in February, and there are some important arguments in favor of choosing the communist country as a venue.

Singapur USA Nordkorea Gipfel Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/E. Vucci

Vietnam may seem as an odd choice, but there are reasons — part of them symbolic — for why the communist nation could be the perfect place for the two leaders to meet. Just as Singapore, where Kim and Trump met for the first time last June, Vietnam has diplomatic ties with both North Korea and the US. North Korea has an embassy in Hanoi and reports suggest that Kim Jong Un is interested in following Vietnam's economic and political example.

In November last year, a North Korean delegation led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho paid an official visit to Hanoi to meet with members of the Vietnamese government. During that visit, Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh told his North Korean counterpart that he welcomed the positive developments on the Korean Peninsula and that Vietnam was willing to share its socio-economic development experiences, Vietnamese state media reported.

Read more: 2019: Will there be a breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula?

Even before Vietnam was picked as the location for the next Trump-Kim summit, Kim Jong Un had informed the Vietnamese government about his wish to pay an official visit to Hanoi, Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on Vietnam, told DW. "For Kim it's relatively safe to travel to Vietnam. From Pyongyang, he can get to Hanoi in three to four hours by using his private plane."

Vietnam as a role model

Vietnam and North Korea established formal diplomatic relations in 1950. Although the relationship hasn't been perfect and both countries have had arguments about trade, Hanoi has always maintained its ties with Pyongyang. "Vietnam hosts students from North Korea who research Vietnam's economic model and in 2010, Vietnam hosted confidential talks between North Korea and Japan on family reunions," Vietnam expert Thayer said.

Choosing Vietnam over any other location also has a highly symbolic value. In 1975, after two decades of war, including a devastating 10-year-long war with the US, Vietnam was perceived as a communist pariah by Western countries. The impoverished nation faced economic sanctions and had to get back on its feet.

In 1986, it launched doi moi, a series of economic reforms that liberalized the economy and turned the Southeast Asian nation into one of the fastest growing economies in the region — last year, Vietnam's GDP grew by about seven percent. The country could also pose as a good example for North Korea because it hasn't become a liberal democracy to be economically successful. Its one-party state model is still in place, but that doesn't stop it from doing business with the rest of the world. In recent years, Vietnam has drawn billions of dollars in foreign investment and has negotiated free trade agreements with the European Union as well as with some Pacific-rim countries.

Read more: In Japan, Angela Merkel warns against handling North Korea naively

According to South Korean media, Kim Jong Un is also impressed by the rise of Vietnam. During a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North Korean leader reportedly said he preferred the way Vietnam had opened up its economy compared to the Chinese model.

"There are certainly complex economic issues in which North Korea can learn from both China and Vietnam," Carl Thayer told DW. "I don't think the Vietnam model is perfect for North Korea, but it shows what's possible."

A good deal for everybody

For Donald Trump too, Vietnam is a safe place to meet. Over the past years, relations between Washington and Hanoi have improved significantly. Vietnamese government leaders have held official meetings with both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Saigon Fluss Vietnam
In 1986, Vietnam launched doi moi, a series of economic reforms that liberalized the economy and turned the Southeast Asian nation into one of the fastest growing economies in the regionImage: picture alliance/dpa/R.Harding

In May 2017, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was welcomed by Trump in the White House, followed by a visit by Trump to Hanoi later that year. The US is also an important trade partner for Vietnam, especially now that Washington and Beijing are stuck in an ongoing trade dispute.

In his latest State of the Union address, the US president called his relationship with North Korea "a good one" and said his latest attempts to initiate talks were "part of a bold new diplomacy." He also said if it were not for him, "we would, right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea."

Trump may now try to appoint Hanoi as the mentor of Pyongyang and for Kim Jong Un, the example of Vietnam could certainly be appealing: gaining economic success without giving up too much political control and having a good relationship with both the US and the EU at the same time.