MELBOURNE: US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have begun two days of talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, in what will be their second meeting within eight months.
While it might not draw as much attention as the earlier landmark event in Singapore, the Hanoi summit is expected to produce concrete results, on top of good pictures and Twitter news.
HANOI A NEUTRAL PEACEMAKER
The location offers something for both sides of the summit. Few countries can claim to have a good relationship with both North Korea and the United States as Vietnam can.
Hanoi has long considered Pyongyang a close friend. It supported the country during the Vietnam War and its founding father Kim Il Sung visited twice.
Despite recent stumbles because of Kim Jong Nam’s "assassination" in Malaysia two years ago, in which a Vietnamese woman was involved, North Korea remains one of only five communist comrades.
On the other hand, the United States has grown to be one of Hanoi’s most important partners – economically and politically – in the past two decades, while China has become increasingly aggressive in its ambitions in Asia.
To say the least, Vietnam is an optimal destination of a neutral peacemaker.
Second, in a point made by former US State Department official Mintaro Oba: “Vietnam is logistically convenient, diplomatically viable, and symbolically significant.”
It is a manageable distance to Pyongyang, meaning Kim could travel by train via China. That makes security for him less troublesome than would have been if the summit was organised further afield.
The Vietnamese authorities have declared that 100 per cent of the police force in Hanoi – approximately 20,000 – and an additional elite force of 1,000 personnel from the central government will be responsible for guaranteeing the security of the event.
Third, no matter how much we expect from the Hanoi Summit, it is very unlikely that a real breakthrough, such as North Korea’s commitment to dismantle their nuclear arsenal irreversibly, will occur in Hanoi.
Denuclearisation will not happen overnight. This leads to a significant question: What Vietnam can offer to that process? The answer is a lot.
VIETNAM EMERGES A MODEL FOR NORTH KOREA
Thirty years ago, Vietnam was in the same situation as North Korea.
As the result of its invasion of Cambodia to bring down the Khmer Rouge regime, Hanoi faced blockades by China, European countries, the United States, and Southeast Asian nations. The economy was close to collapse, while its main supporter, the Soviet Union, was also in big trouble.
Vietnamese leaders responded by implementing Doi Moi (reforms) in 1986, embracing a market-oriented economy while maintaining a one-party regime.
The rest is history: A war-devastated country transformed into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in three decades. As North Korea seeks to open up its highly centralised economy, it should have a close look at Vietnam’s success.
Recent actions from North Korea suggest a willingness to learn. Back in 2012, a North Korean delegation visited Thai Binh province to examine its rural development. Last year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Hanoi to study Vietnam's reforms.
It is also reported that Kim Jong Un will likely visit Samsung’s factory in Vietnam, which produces half of Samsung’s smartphones and accounts for 25 per cent of Vietnam’s exports, and then Hai Phong, where the manufacturing facilities of Vietnam’s biggest private company, Vingroup, is located.
ECONOMIC COOPERATION, NOT SANCTIONS
Strong economic ties are much more effective than sanctions in solving conflict. After the normalisation of Vietnam-US relations, the two countries have engaged deeply in a wide range of activities.
The US has become Vietnam’s biggest export market and a strategic partner in regional security matters. The rosy relationship between the two unlikely friends may be something Kim Jong Un will examine carefully.
A prosperous North Korea is a best case scenario for the peace process in the Korean Peninsula. It is always much harder to negotiate with someone who has nothing to lose.
Vietnam also stands to benefit from the summit. Over the last 10 years, the country has made moves to elevate its role in international affairs by organising international meetings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2008 and 2017, the high-powered World Economic Forum in 2018, and ASEAN meetings during its chairmanship in 2010.
Hanoi wants to enhance its status in the international community, improve its strategic partnership with the United States and fraternal relationship with North Korea, while making it easier for it to call for attention in heated issues like the territorial disputes over the South China Sea.
The heavy media coverage of the event will also help Vietnam tell its own success story without paying for expensive advertisement campaigns.
Now is the time for Vietnam to be recognised as a vibrant economy and a young, modern society, rather than a shorthand for a bloody war that ended nearly a half-century ago.
Trinh Le is a radio producer at Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service. This commentary first appeared in Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter.