HONG KONG — With President Trump planning to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, next month, Vietnam appears to be the leading contender as host for the event.
The meeting would be a reprise of the leaders’ landmark summit meeting last June, and holding it in Vietnam would cast a spotlight on a country that has become an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia after emerging from poverty and isolation in the decades since the Vietnam War.
A White House official said the meeting’s date and location would be announced later. Thailand and Hawaii have also been mentioned as possible sites, but Vietnam is considered the best bet.
Picking Vietnam could make sense for the United States and South Korea, because American officials have pointed to it as a political and economic model for North Korea to follow.
Why would Seoul and Washington like the idea?
Vietnam, a former enemy of South Korea and the United States, has joined the global economy and become a strategic ally and robust trading partner for both countries.
Vietnam and South Korea normalized relations in 1992, and Hanoi is now Seoul’s fourth-largest trading partner after China, the United States and Japan, with two-way trade valued last year at $62.6 billion.
Vietnam and the United States normalized relations in 1995, two decades after North Vietnam defeated the American-backed South Vietnamese regime to end the Vietnam War. From 1995 to 2016 — a period of heady economic growth in Vietnam — trade between the United States and Vietnam grew to nearly $52 billion from $451 million. Hanoi is now among Washington’s fastest-growing export markets.
“The fact that we’re cooperating — and not fighting — is proof that when a country decides to create a brighter future for itself alongside the United States, we follow through on American promises,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a trip to Hanoi last summer.
“The miracle could be your miracle,” Mr. Pompeo added, referring to North Korea and its leader.
What are Vietnam-North Korean relations like?
Even though Vietnam and North Korea are both ideologically socialist, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has traditionally been run on a more collective model, with power split at the top among a triumvirate of leaders.
The North Korean model is more “Kim family-cult based,” said Hoo Chiew-Ping, an expert on North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asia at the National University of Malaysia.
Still, Pyongyang is one of Hanoi’s oldest friends.
North Korea recognized Vietnam’s communist regime diplomatically in 1950 — four years before Vietnam won its independence from France. It also provided material and personnel to North Vietnam during its war against the United States.
Vietnam, for its part, supported North Korea’s membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum, a dialogue on political and security issues, and sponsored reconciliation talks between North Korea and Japan.
And during North Korea’s devastating famine in the 1990s, Hanoi swapped rice for weapons from Pyongyang, with Vietnam getting two miniature submarines and some Scud missiles, among other weaponry.
Would Vietnam welcome a Trump-Kim summit?
The idea has not garnered much attention on Vietnamese social media in recent days, but recent reports in Vietnam’s state-run news media suggest that the country’s leadership would relish the opportunity of being the host for such a high-profile event.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc vowed last week to “do our best to facilitate the meeting” if Vietnam were chosen as host.
“Vietnam has cooperated well with the U.S. in developing economic and trade relations, as well as in other areas,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Vietnam has a complex foreign policy built on a web of partnerships with multiple world powers, including China, Russia and the United States.
Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam expert at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that serving as host for the summit meeting could help Vietnam “sell its economic success story” and play a more active role in regional affairs to match its growing economic clout.
As a possible site of the summit, American and Vietnamese officials are said to be considering Danang, an up-and-coming coastal city that played host to Mr. Trump and other world leaders in 2017 at a regional economic forum.
Would Kim Jong-un follow Vietnam’s lead?
Mr. Hiep said the United States and South Korea should be careful not to overemphasize the comparison between North Korea and Vietnam.
“Kim Jong-un has proven to be an independent-minded leader,” Mr. Hiep said, “and he may not like to officially acknowledge that he is following another country’s model, especially under external influence or pressure.”
North Korea may also be wary of a Vietnam-style growth model, because Vietnam is so economically dependent on China, its neighbor and largest trading partner, said Eunjung Lim, an expert on comparative governance at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan.
Ms. Lim said the North Korean leader might see Singapore as a better model because of its strategic position as a trading port between the Middle East and East Asia and its role as a hub for the transportation and financial industries.
North Korea is similarly well positioned — between China, Russia, South Korea and Japan — which could likewise contribute tremendously to its economy.
She said Mr. Kim might also take inspiration from Singapore’s Lee family dynasty, which has stayed in power since the country’s founding in 1965, even though that country, unlike North Korea, has democratic elections.
“North Korea is a dynasty,” Ms. Lim said. “Of course, it is a one-party system, but dynastic features of its regime are more important to consider.”
Orignially published in NYT.