The Trump Administration Wants North Korea to be the Next Vietnam
In locating the next meeting in Vietnam, a country that fought a devastating war against the United States but that is now a fast-growing economy and a regional ally, the White House appears to once again be trying to illustrate what is on offer if Kim cooperates.
Both Vietnam and North Korea suffered through ruinous Cold War conflicts involving America, and both are among the world’s few remaining Communist-led nations. That, however, is where the similarities between the two countries end.
"From the U.S. side, we want to show North Korea what it could look like should it denuclearize and stop acting as a rogue nation," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., who specializes in Southeast Asian political and security issues. "We would like to showcase Vietnam as this model of a reformed socialist state that is part of the community of nations and a thriving part of the global economy."
In Vietnam’s case, the country emerged in the 1970s from a two-decade war that left millions dead, urban areas impoverished, and huge swaths of the countryside doused with chemical defoliants. A decade of food shortages, economic stagnation, and international isolation followed.
But since initiating economic reforms in 1986, it has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, lifting millions of people out of poverty along the way. It is a major cog in the global trading network, and an important diplomatic and security partner for the United States in Southeast Asia.
North Korea, by contrast, remains a closed economy under brutal dynastic rule, isolated from the global community. (Vietnam, while also a single-party state, has a pluralistic leadership model that eschews the cult of personality that Kim Jong Un, his father, and his grandfather built around them. Kim, who has never visited Vietnam, will be hard-pressed not to notice these stark differences.
Among the best examples of the transformed relationship between Washington and Hanoi is Thinh Pham, who works for a marketing company in Ho Chi Minh City. Born in the 1990s—like the majority of Vietnam’s 95 million people, he was born after the end of the war—he has no memory of the country’s difficult past. He watches YouTube clips of American late-night hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers, and is a fan of the comedian Dave Chappelle and TV shows such as Game of Thrones.
“Probably 80 percent of the content I consume comes from the U.S.,” Thinh told me. “Plus, it’s in English, and I need to improve mine.”
Remarkably, given that the two countries’ soldiers were trying to kill one another less than half a century ago, Vietnam's leaders are also eager to portray themselves as proactive contributors to regional and global security and, crucially, as partners to the United States. Perhaps the most eye-catching sign of this effort came in March 2018, when the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, paid a four-day visit to Da Nang, the first time such an American ship had anchored in Vietnam since 1975, as the war was ending.