The night before his historic summit with US President Donald Trump last June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took a surprise stroll in downtown Singapore to see the sights of the wealthy capitalist city.
The inference seemed clear. If cash-strapped Pyongyang chooses to engage the world – and ditch its nuclear weapons – this could be its future.
Trump and Kim will this month have an even more symbolic backdrop for their next meeting: Vietnam, a country which transformed itself from bitter US enemy to peaceful partner in less than 50 years.
Experts believe the Trump administration plans to sell North Korea on a model such as communist Vietnam, highlighting its relationship with Washington as well as its economic boom since adopting market reforms. And all the North Koreans have to do, Washington is expected to say, is give up their nukes.
Yet analysts are wary such a sales pitch will produce any tangible outcome. North Korea knows how capitalism and market economies work: it’s just chosen not to embrace them.
China has for years been prodding the North to embrace economic reform, dragging former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on tours of capitalist enterprises whenever he visited.
The same tactic has also been used within the United States, said Van Jackson, a former Defense Department official in the Obama administration.
“Historically, there have been many – I know of half a dozen instances myself personally – where senior North Korean officials were brought around and shown what capitalist industrialism looks like. They were shown what the stock market floor looks like on the New York Stock Exchange, or they were brought out to some tech lab in Silicon Valley,” said Jackson, author of “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War.”
“We’ve shown them what capitalism looks like … the idea that they will see something in Vietnam physically that triggers something different than what we’ve shown them before is kind of nonsense.”
‘From a mortal enemy to a friendly partner’
There’s something for both Washington and Pyongyang to like when studying the US-Vietnam relationship.
For North Korea, it’s an example of a single-party communist country that reformed its economy without democratizing. For the United States, it’s an example of how to redefine a relationship and make a buck at the same time.
In 1995 – the year Hanoi and Washington normalized relations – US exports to and imports from Vietnam were worth just $252 million and $199 million respectively. However in the first 11 months of 2018, the US exported more than $8 billion worth of goods to Vietnam and imported goods worth $45 billion, according to US Census figures.
“Vietnam’s path from a mortal enemy to a friendly partner of the United States is particularly appealing to North Korea, who believes a good relationship with the United States can help create the right environment and necessary conditions for achieving North Korea’s new strategic drive toward economic development,” said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
The concept isn’t new, of course. During his time as an Asia expert at the State Department in the Clinton administration, Evans Revere said negotiators working with North Korea were even then trying to point them to Vietnam, which was beginning to reap the benefits of market reforms and becoming a member of good international standing.
“We thought, somewhat naively back then, that this would appeal to the North Koreans greatly and that our commitments to work with them on bringing about a modernized economy would be so attractive … that they would stand down from their nuclear weapons program. We were wrong,” Revere said.
“If all of these incentives or this incentive-based approach to coaxing North Korea down a new path did not work when they didn’t have nuclear weapons, and it didn’t work to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons, why will it work now that they are in effect a nuclear weapons state?”
‘Dead people don’t need money’
Some with extensive experience inside North Korea worry about overzealous use of the Vietnam comparison.
Jean Lee is one of the few Western journalists who has worked in North Korea on a consistent basis. She opened the Associated Press’s bureau in Pyongyang in 2012 after extensive haggling with the government, spending a total of three years on the ground in the country.
She says that while Vietnam does boast options that “Kim Jong Un wants to show his people,” North Korea still sees itself as a superior nation.
“They will go into this discussion saying exactly that – hey, there’s no comparison here, we’re a nuclear power. And they’re going to be busting out this image of North Korea as a nuclear state as much as they can because it gives North Korea much more leverage and a much stronger place at the table than if they were just another poor country,” Lee said.
Andrei Lankov’s assessment is more blunt.
“Donald Trump and many other people in Washington essentially say if North Korea surrenders nuclear weapons and accepts foreign investment – like China did – it will become a very rich country, and the North Korean leaders will enjoy a lifestyle they cannot even dream of now,” Lankov said.
“The problem with this message is simple – dead people do not need money.”
Lankov is one of the few foreigners ever to study at Kim Il Sung University, the country’s most prestigious institution of higher learning. Today he runs the Korea Risk Group consultancy, teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul and is considered one of the world’s experts on the inner workings of North Korea.
He says Kim and his top advisers are cold, realistic and brutally rational. They believe that nuclear weapons are the key to their survival given the fate of Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Ukraine as well as Trump’s decision to ditch the Iran nuclear deal.
“For the North Koreans, security comes first. And they believe that their security is imperfect if they don’t have some nuclear weapons. A reduction of nuclear weapons can be negotiated, but denuclearization is a pipe dream,” Lankov said.
Jackson, the former Defense Department official, is also unconvinced that Kim Jong Un is the reformer many hoped he would be.
Though Kim is a millennial leader educated in the West, he has now been in power for seven years – during which time he’s overseen more missile and nuclear tests than his father and grandfather combined, without “meaningful signs” of economic change.
“What is different now than the previous 30 years that makes that control-versus-opening tradeoff worthwhile?” Jackson said.
Hope for a deal
Critics of the Trump administration’s unconventional North Korea policy have assailed the President and his advisers for failing to get the North to agree to anything specific at their June meeting – the first between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president – in Singapore.
The US contends that talks have brought the two sides back from the brink of war and created an unprecedented opportunity to cut a deal.
A handful of analysts believe there is an agreement to be had but question whether either side has the flexibility to compromise.
“So far, the negotiations have reduced tensions for a year and slowed the advancement of the arsenal marginally. The trick now is to make those limits permanent and to make them strict limits,” said Adam Mount, an expert in nuclear deterrence at the Federation of American Scientists.
Lee, the former AP Pyongyang bureau chief, likens Trump and Kim’s next meeting to a chess match. The first summit helped establish a “leader-level relationship,” but Hanoi will be time to move beyond smiles and pleasantries.
“They (US) need to go into this next summit prepared and having done their homework,” she said.
“I know how tough the North Koreans are, and if you don’t understand the history and the motivations of the North Koreans, it’s very easy to be swayed by the propaganda and the drama of the moment.”