Vietnam courted by North Korea

The North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, will spend four days in Vietnam

North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, is visiting Vietnam this week following reports the regime sees Vietnam as a model for its future development.

Mr Ri will spend four days in the country after telling Vietnamese leaders he wants to learn more about Vietnam’s economic achievements.

As a one-party, and still ostensibly socialist, state with one of the highest growth rates in Asia, the appeal of Vietnam is obvious for an impoverished totalitarian regime such as North Korea.

Vietnam’s diplomatic success in building strategic partnerships across the globe, while at the same time balancing relations between China and the United States, would also appear to have impressed the North Koreans.

South Korean officials say that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, mentioned the appeal of the Vietnamese model on a number of occasions during recent meetings.

He has also spoken publicly of the need for economic reform, a significant departure from his father, Kim Jong-il, who tolerated the limited growth of free markets but never publicly acknowledged their existence or their value.

China has tried on a number of occasions to interest the North Koreans in Chinese style economic reform, only to be rebuffed by a deeply suspicious regime resistant to interference even by nominal allies.

Like his father, Kim Jong-un is extremely wary of too close an embrace from China – focusing on the model of an unthreatening and faraway Vietnam is far more palatable.

Vietnam pioneered its “Doi Moi” reforms in the late 1980s, easing rigid state control in some sectors and opening the door to foreign investors.

Kim has also attempted to lure investors with the announcement of various “special economic zones”, but has not been able to win the trust and enthusiasm of large foreign companies in the way that Vietnam has.

North Korea’s bottom line is finding a way to boost economic growth without any parallel political liberalisation that could threaten the legitimacy of its system.

Vietnam again provides an attractive model, with the Communist party retaining firm control of the state and using heavy handed tools of repression to intimidate and silence critics.

North Korea’s political controls are far more brutal and comprehensive than Vietnam’s ever were. The system is based on secular worship of the ruling Kim family, with the faintest suggestion of criticism treated as heresy that must be eradicated.

Kim, however, will take heart from Vietnam’s example – that one-party rule can go hand in hand with impressive economic growth.

Cultural and historical parallels between Korea and Vietnam also make Vietnam an interesting case study for would-be reformers in the North.

Both have been uneasy neighbours of China, constantly struggling for independence, while at the same time absorbing Confucian culture from China along with other belief systems.

Both were also divided in the years after the Second World War and both suffered the devastation of wars of national unification.

North Korea looks to Vietnam as a country that prevailed in its conflict with the United States and then succeeded in achieving a workable peace and finally good economic ties with the superpower.

It also sees a country that has successfully resisted China’s attempts at economic domination, balancing the power of its northern neighbour with strategic ties around the world – from Moscow and Delhi to Washington, Tokyo and the European Union.

Vietnamese officials appear only too happy to lend a hand to their North Korean suitors.

Vietnam is still often pilloried in the west as an oppressive state that gives little regard to human rights and liberal values – Vietnamese leaders will be flattered that at least one country sees their land as a shining example that deserves close study and possible emulation.