Why Vietnam is more than just a welcoming host for the second Trump-Kim summit

Photo Credit: Hieudc/Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will meet in Hanoi on Wednesday. The host nation offers more than just a safe and secure summit location. It offers a clearly-defined path to liberalisation.


Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced they would hold their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27 and 28.

According to Mintaro Oba, a former US State Department official, a two-day summit will allow both leaders “to develop their relationship while buying more time for lower-level negotiators to finalize a joint statement”. As Trump vowed to “continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula”, the focus of this will likely involve pushing the rogue state to take concrete measures towards denuclearisation, while providing limited concessions. These concessions could involve easing international aid restrictions or lifting part of the global sanctions imposed on North Korea, thus paving the way for Pyongyang to resume foreign trade.

Vietnam offers a path to economic inclusion

Vietnam as the chosen host offers something for both sides of the summit. As North Korea shows signs of opening up its highly centralised economy, following the US economic model would be out of the question. The regime relies on the Kim dynasty’s centralised power for stability, eliminating the possibility of transitioning to a multi-party system.

Vietnam, on the other hand, as a single-party communist state fully integrated into the global economic markets, represents a model to emulate. Should North Korea choose to walk the same path of economic reform Vietnam paved, Pyongyang’s liberalisation has a better chance of securing Chinese support.  Beijing would prefer to see its neighbour remain a single-party communist state than adopt Western-style democratic reform.

In the late 1980s, Vietnam embarked on a comprehensive program of free-market reforms known as Doi Moi, embracing capitalism without forsaking its communist roots. In the process, Vietnam transformed itself from a war-devastated country to one of the fastest growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region. Since 1990, Vietnam has been one of ASEAN’s manufacturing hubs, with an economy now six times larger than North Korea’s. Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is at the highest rate in a decade (7.1%) and GDP per capita is now US$2,540.

North Korea has appeared more willing to experiment with economic reforms under Kim Jong Un. Back in 2012, a North Korean delegation visited Vietnam’s Thai Binh Province to examine its rural development, and then last year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho reportedly visited Hanoi to study Vietnam’s reforms.

Vietnam is also happy to share its experiences. Recently, Vietnam’s parliamentary chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan said her country was “willing to share an economic solution and know-how with North Korea”, a view favoured by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he said that Pyongyang could enjoy an economic miracle akin to Vietnam’s if they so wished.

President Trump and Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore in 2018.
Photo Credit: Dan Scavino Jr./Twitter

Vietnam has gone from war-time foe to valuable trading partner

In terms of multilateral relations, since Doi Moi, Vietnam has strived to become “a friend and reliable partner of all countries.” Despite stark ideological differences and conflicts during the Vietnam War, Hanoi has maintained diplomatic relations with Washington and forged close ties rooted in mutual economic and security interests. There is nothing to suggest that Kim cannot achieve the same.

In fact, in a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April 2018, Kim Jong-un stated that he wanted to follow Vietnam-style reforms due to the country’s cordial relationship with the US.

The summit is also part of Vietnam’s continued development

Vietnam has tried to elevate its role in international affairs through organising safe and secured international meetings. For instance, Da Nang hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2017 and prestigious World Economic Forum on ASEAN last year. The Southeast Asian nation has been campaigning for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021 term.

Hosting the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presents an unmissable opportunity for Vietnam to bolster its status in the international community, improve its strategic partnerships with the United States, and strengthen its claim to a non-permanent seat at the UNSC. It shows Vietnam’s commitment to peacebuilding and its role as a responsible member of the international community.

“Vietnam will demonstrate its international role and do its best to let the word ‘Vietnam’ ring out,” said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on 12 February 2019. If the summit achieves landmark commitments towards denuclearisation from the DPRK, Vietnam will be etched in the annals of history as a dialogue facilitator and shining example of what normalised international relations and a liberalised economy can achieve.