Both North Korea and Vietnam are one-party Communist states that have fought bitter wars against the U.S. But unlike North Korea, Vietnam normalized relations with the U.S. and has grown and prospered — something North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will see firsthand this week while he’s in Hanoi for his second summit meeting with President Trump. The U.S. and many in Vietnam hope Kim will also see Vietnam’s experience as a model for his own country.
During the Vietnam War, North Korea secretly sent pilots to fight alongside North Vietnamese forces. The North Koreans flew combat missions against American bombers over Hanoi. Some paid with their lives.
“They were martyrs,” says Duong Van Dau, a caretaker who watches over a modest memorial in Bac Giang province, about an hour’s drive north of Hanoi. Fourteen headstones bear names of the dead etched in Korean on one side and Vietnamese on the other.
“They came to fight for our country and they died for our country,” he says. “So this memorial is to honor their sacrifice.”
The memorial doesn’t get many visitors these days — and even fewer have come since the bodies originally interred here were repatriated over a decade ago.
During the war, Dau fought against the Americans and was wounded in 1971 outside the South Vietnamese capital Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese died during what they call the American War, as did more than 58,000 Americans.
But all that’s in the past, he says.
“Of course, during the war, we hated the Americans because they were our enemies,” he says. “But now the war is over, and we are friends.”
It’s been a remarkable transformation. Since the two countries normalized relations in 1995, Vietnam’s economic growth has surged, making it “one of the most dynamic emerging countries in the East Asia region,” according to the World Bank.
And trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has skyrocketed, growing from $451 million in 1995 to more than $54 billion in 2017, according to a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations. “The United States is the largest destination for Vietnamese goods, such as clothing, electronics, footwear and seafood. For its part, Vietnam imports machinery, vehicles, and agricultural products from the United States,” the report states.
The Vietnamese model is one the U.S. government hopes North Korea will emulate. Shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as much at a business leaders’ meeting in Hanoi.
“In light of the once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today, I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong Un: President Trump believes your country can replicate this path,” Pompeo said. “It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment. The miracle could be yours; it can be your miracle in North Korea as well.”
But it won’t be easy convincing an isolationist, xenophobic North Korean government that is deeply suspicious of the U.S.
Vietnamese economist Le Dang Doanh, an advisor to several Vietnamese prime ministers, has met multiple times with North Korean delegations over the years, most recently in 2014.
“The North Korean delegations all the time asked me, ‘Why did you normalize relations with the U.S.?'” he says. “‘You have been fighting for so long and now you make friends with Washington, how did you do it?'”
The simple answer, he says, was necessity. Like North Korea now, Vietnam between 1975 and 1995 was crippled by economic sanctions and a U.S. trade embargo. And even though Vietnam started liberalizing its economy in 1986, a process known as doi moi, its prospects were still grim.
“I told them we never forget the past,” the economist says. “But now we look to the future. And Vietnam must develop the economy, must industrialize, and it’s the best way to have a normal and friendly relation to the U.S.”
Hanoi is full of major U.S. brands — KFCs and Starbucks, Burger Kings and Brooks Brothers, Popeye’s and Pepsi-Cola. But Vietnam’s increasingly capitalist economic culture hasn’t dented the Communist Party’s stranglehold on political power. It ruthlessly stifles dissent and frequently jails critics who dare criticize the government.
“I think this is a very good chance to show Mr. Kim about our success in economic development and in keeping Communist power in place,” says analyst Hoang Ngoc Giao, the director of the Institute for Policy, Law and Development Studies in Hanoi. “North Korea is now like Vietnam in the past. They are looking for new ways to get out of their isolated situation with the world.”
The Vietnamese model of economic prosperity without sacrificing political control could work well for the North Korean strongman, he believes.
“You know, give some more freedoms for the market economy, freedom for the people and private sector. And at the same time, he can keep the political power. He can learn this from the Vietnamese Communist Party.”
Despite a dismal human rights record, Vietnam enjoys close economic and diplomatic ties with the U.S. and has become an increasingly important American partner in a region where both countries view Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as a geopolitical threat.
Last year, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited the Vietnamese port city of Danang. It was the first visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier since the end of the Vietnam War and one widely seen as aimed at China. This week’s summit, coincidentally, comes in the same week as the 40th anniversary of the bloody border war between China and Vietnam over Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Cambodia.
Hoang Duy Linh, a 29-year-old tour guide, hopes the Trump-Kim summit will help raise Vietnam’s profile on the world stage and help attract more tourists. But he doesn’t necessarily want to see them at one of his favorite restaurants, the Huong Lien, the hole in the wall where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain famously sat down for bun cha and beer in 2016.
“Actually, before Obama was here, this was also [a] quite famous restaurant in Hanoi. But not for tourists, only for local Vietnamese,” he says. “But after Obama [was] here, it’s like a bomb. Boom! Now every time I come, it’s too crowded and I have to wait.”
Nguyen Manh Hung, the owner of a coffee shop next door, keeps a picture on the wall of him with Obama and some neighbors taken during the 2016 restaurant visit.
“Everybody was very happy, and there was a big crowd,” he says. “When Obama got out of his car, he shook hands with everyone and everyone was very friendly.”
He doubts President Trump will get a similar rock-star welcome. Nor does he believe a rich man like Trump would come to a modest restaurant like the Huong Lien. But he thinks Kim should learn from Vietnam’s example and make peace with the U.S.
“They will have to do that to survive, because the North Korean people have suffered abject poverty for so long, just as we did,” he says. “So I think they need to follow Vietnam’s path.”
Whether Kim will heed that advice — or make the concrete steps toward denuclearization the U.S. seeks — is anybody’s guess. If he doesn’t, the coffee shop owner believes, things for ordinary North Koreans are just going to get worse.