Trump-Kim summit: What might Kim learn from hosts Vietnam?

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Crowds on motorbikes in Danang, Vietnam (Jan 2019)Image source, Getty Images
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Vietnam's economic boom has happened with very little loosening of state control

In late February, North Korea's Kim Jong-un will sit down for a second time with US President Donald Trump.

The world's eyes will be focused on their nuclear negotiations, but Mr Kim will also be taking a very close look at the host country, Vietnam, as Le Quynh of BBC Vietnamese explains.

Mr Kim may well like what he sees in Vietnam.

Like North Korea, it's a one-party Communist state. But since 1986, Vietnam has opened up its economy and its growth has been one of the fastest in Asia - the World Bank says its GDP growth rate could reach 6.6% this year.

And the Vietnamese Communist party has done this while retaining absolute power.

It allows no opposition groups, maintains "absolute and direct leadership" over the army and the police and has conducted, says human rights group Amnesty International, a "relentless crackdown on dissent".

Vietnam ranks just above North Korea at the bottom of the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

But hosting such a major summit is certainly a sign that Vietnam has come a long way since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. A booming economy and prominent global role with no let-up on social controls may well appeal to Mr Kim.

Judging from comments on Vietnamese social media, most people are proud of their country being chosen to host the summit.

Among them is Le Dang Doanh, a former adviser to the prime minister who has conducted extensive research on how Vietnam's transition could help North Korea. He has twice met visiting North Korean delegates.

There may be stark differences, the veteran economist told the BBC, "but Vietnam's experience in private sector development, foreign investment attraction and deeper international integration may be helpful to North Korea".

Start with the farm

Vietnam's success story may has been long touted as an example for isolated North Korea, but there is little evidence that Kim Jong-un's late father, Kim Jong-il, ever took the idea seriously. He never, for example, visited Vietnam.

But Kim Jong-un has shown signs of being more open to change.

Image source, KCNA
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Economic growth has been a top priority

Since he took over in 2011, there have been limited reforms in the agricultural sector, for example, allowing farmers to keep some of what they harvest.

And last April, Mr Kim claimed that as North Korea had successfully achieved nuclear capability, it could now focus on improving living standards.

Vietnamese experts like Le Dang Doanh say there are some parallels between Vietnam in its early transition and North Korea today.

Like North Korea, Vietnam knows the impact of trade embargos. Although Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978, its subsequent occupation in Cambodia for the next 11 years gave the US grounds to pressure the IMF and the World Bank to deny Vietnam aid.

And like North Korea under Mr Kim, isolated Vietnam started its change with grassroots reforms in collectivised agriculture.

"Before reform, Vietnam used to import one million tons of rice a year, but we are now an important rice and agricultural exporter," Mr Doanh said.

Vietnam went on to set up a foreign investment law, normalise its relationship with the world and privatise many of its state-owned corporations. American President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, and one year later, Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). It became a WTO member in 2007.

North Korea could learn from this pragmatic gradualism, says Vu Minh Khuong, a Vietnamese academic at National University of Singapore and an economic adviser to Vietnam's current prime minister.

He told the BBC that North Korea could follow by focusing at first on reforming its infrastructure and institutions, and perhaps by setting out a bold vision.

"Vietnam has set out the aspiration to become a developed nation by 2045," said Mr Khuong.

"This vision is expected to become a powerful force to advance the country forwards at rapid pace in the years to come."

Keeping everyone on board

Of course, there are limits to what North Korea can achieve in the short term.

For a start, unless Washington and Pyongyang agree on what denuclearisation means and start work on it, there will be no lifting of sanctions so it will be difficult for foreign investors to even consider North Korea.

Image source, AFP
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Ho Chi Minh remains a revered figure across Vietnam

And Mr Kim would also need to convince North Korea's elite that opening up is a triumph of his long-term policies, not a capitulation to market forces.

In this regard, Vietnam will be instructive.

Opening the economy has gone alongside a reassertion of the Communist Party's primacy and its heroic past. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and Vietnam had to adjust to a new reality, Ho Chi Minh's Thought became one of the country's guiding ideologies, along with Marxism-Leninism.

And while discussions of a multi-party system are strictly forbidden, Vietnamese people have enjoyed greater freedom in their economic, religious and social lives.

Foreign travel, especially to neighbouring countries, has become common. There is a contradictory co-existence between an official media censorship and an unofficial lively discourse on Facebook.

Image source, AFP
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Vietnamese people may have more economic freedom but access to media is heavily controlled

It is unclear if or when this delicate combination of tight political control and social relaxation can be applied in North Korea.

Still, if Kim Jong-un wants to follow a model of economic reform with limited political liberalisation, Vietnam, due to its size, may be a more relevant example than, say, China.

"Vietnam has learned how to pursue a multi-directional foreign policy, to avoid being dependent on one economy, and to build modern systems in financing and banking," said Le Dang Doanh.

He added that if North Korea is serious about change, there were also less positive lessons to learn.

"What Vietnam has not done so well in managing the natural resources and fighting corruption may also be useful for North Korea," he said.

He also pointed out that in his meetings with North Korean officials, they've been keen to ask whether there had been internal conflicts among Vietnamese leaders about their reforms, and how Vietnam managed this, which may give a clue to one of the biggest challenges to North Korean change.