Vietnam’s role in North Korea: a ‘friendship’ endures?
Though it is one of Pyongyang’s last remaining fellow communist regimes, Vietnam may be of less help diffusing tensions than some would hope
In the wake of the most advanced weapons test in North Korean history at the beginning of this month, nations of the Asia-Pacific Region are responding to the rising tensions. In Hanoi, the capital of one of the few remaining states governed by a communist party, the incident was met with apprehension and anxiety.
As the two communist states are committed to cordial formalities, some observers express optimism that Vietnam can mediate between North Korea and its foes. Nevertheless, Vietnam does not want to jeopardize flourishing trade and investment with South Korea and Japan, North Korea’s sworn enemies.
In this context it is unlikely that Vietnam can persuade North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), to abandon its nuclear program, or would even attempt to. Rather, Vietnam maintains a multifaceted approach to North Korea, maintaining formal ‘friendship’ while consistently condemning its nuclear ambitions.
The day following the July 4 launch of what was purported to be to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang offered the following statement:
“Vietnam is deeply concerned regarding the DPRK’s decision to proceed with the ICBM-Mars 14 test launch on 4 July 2017, [which represents] a grave violation of several UN Security Council resolutions and an elevation of tensions in the region.”
Vietnam has consistently supported any and all efforts to promote dialogue and uphold peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, urging each party to earnestly observe United Nations Security Council resolutions, actively strive for peace [and make] practical contributions to the maintenance of peace.
This condemnation reads almost identically to various statements issued between 2006 and 2016 following prior North Korean tests. Vietnamese policy prioritizes non-nuclear proliferation, stability and trade on the Korean Peninsula.
Allies in a bygone era, Vietnam and North Korea maintain an uneasy and tenuous relationship, officially deemed as “friendship,” and united almost solely on the basis of their shared ideological histories.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1994, Vietnam has reoriented its relations with the West, Japan and South Korea.
Vietnam and North Korea during the Cold War
North Korea became the third country to recognize North Vietnam in 1950, after China and the Soviet Union. President Ho Chi Minh traveled to North Korea for an official summit with Kim Il-sung in 1957, beginning a partnership that would produce 135 bilateral agreements through 2002.
Despite such intimate cooperation, Vietnamese sources claim that Ho was put off by Kim’s rigid ideology and avid cultivation of a cult of personality.
Throughout the 1960s, North Korea enjoyed a healthier economy than North Vietnam. A rice-for-weapons program was established, with Vietnam receiving various modern armaments and a North Korean pledge to assist in the war against the US. The extent of that aid remains unknown as few details have been made public, though some sources claim that 200 North Korean pilots fought for North Vietnam.
The first test for DPRK-Vietnamese relations came in the 1970s, coinciding with the Sino-Soviet split and Third Indochina War. China backed Cambodia’s Maoist Khmer Rouge in its armed conflict with Vietnam. Pyongyang fell in line behind Beijing by supporting its short but bloody border war with Vietnam in early 1979, launched in response to Hanoi’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge the previous year. Hanoi occupied Cambodia for a decade while China provided material support to the Khmer Rouge’s anti-Vietnam insurgency.
A deeper schism had emerged within the greater socialist world order as governing communist parties around the globe divided into pro-Soviet and pro-China camps. While Hanoi turned decisively to Moscow, Pyongyang entrenched itself within Beijing’s orbit, maintaining its Cold War patron to the present day. Vietnam found itself without powerful allies following the collapse of the Soviet Union; efforts to open its economy and make overtures to former Cold War foes have persisted in this context.
Pivot to South Korea
Economic cooperation continued despite the split, though results were underwhelming. Bilateral trade has never exceeded US$30 million per year. In an attempt to remedy stagnation, an intergovernmental committee was formed on economic, scientific and technological cooperation in 1989, coinciding with Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia. North Korea suspended this arrangement to protest the establishment of Vietnamese relations with South Korea in 1992.
After initiating market reforms, known as ‘doi moi’, similar to China’s “opening and reform” and Soviet Perestroika, Vietnam began gradually pivoting priorities towards South Korea, coordinating closely on economic and cultural matters, much to the displeasure of Pyongyang.
Contemporaneously, North Korea purchased 20,000 tons of Vietnamese rice in 1996 in the wake of famine. Vietnamese sources claim that over US$18 million is still owed for this transaction. Observers deem 1996 as the breaking point in Vietnam-DPRK relations, with essentially no economic collaboration since.
Subsequent North Korean economic deficiencies and isolation provide a stark contrast of chosen paths between the divergent former allies. Vietnam has committed to economic liberalization, while North Korea remains a pariah with non-existent foreign investment and perpetual reliance on China.
Vietnam has not made isolating North Korea a matter of policy, maintaining an embassy in Pyongyang and supporting North Korean participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Forum. Vietnam has presided over North Korean-Japanese reconciliation talks, while also offering advice on economic development and reform. North Korean delegations continue to visit Vietnam.
High-level delegations in 2010, 2012 and 2015 underscore that the two sides are committed to the optics of a formal partnership, with meetings steeped in dated communist vernacular, and have signed a number of agreements on police training, science and technology.
But despite rhetoric to the contrary in bilateral meetings, Hanoi’s apprehension towards Pyongyang and institutionalizing a preference for Seoul have decisively brought an end to the spirit of communist fraternity of the previous century. Vietnam embraces international law in this regard and consistently advocates for nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula by publicly denouncing North Korean nuclear ambitions.
Hanoi pursues a policy of non-isolation with the hermit nation, perpetuating efforts to bring North Korea into the international community and ease regional tensions. But with little substance to an increasingly distant bilateral relationship, it is hardly in a position to play a major role as mediator between the Kim regime and the US.