This week’s second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes place in a highly symbolic location: Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. For the Trump administration, the venue appears to be intended as a symbol of free-market victory: Vietnam’s economy has thrived as it has opened to the world, and it is seen as a potential lure for North Korea, which might develop similarly through reform and openness. On a trip to Hanoi in July last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Kim to replicate Vietnam’s economic “miracle.” “In light of the once unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today,” Pompeo announced, “I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong Un: President Trump believes your country can replicate this path. It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment.”
Vietnam is certainly a model for North Korea—but if you understand North Korea’s history, you realize it’s anything but the lure the Trump administration seems to think. Seen from the perspective of the Kim regime, the Vietnam story offers an example of how even a small country can get the best of the United States, and how a communist regime can reunify a divided nation on its own terms.
Symbolism is critically important in negotiations with national pride on the line, and as this week’s talks begin, Americans and Western diplomats ignore this history at their peril. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, saw North Vietnam’s life and death struggle against the Americans during the Vietnam War as a parallel to his own struggle for national unification. Long after the Korean War was “settled” by an armistice, he kept the struggle alive by adopting a Korean version of the guerrilla and spy tactics used by the North Vietnamese. Kim aided North Vietnam directly against the U.S., sending North Korean pilots to defend Hanoi against U.S. bombers, and tried to incite instability in a more clandestine way by sending psychological operation (PSYOP) teams into South Vietnam to observe and propagandize the South Korean troops fighting alongside the Americans. In the end, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh succeeded in something that still seems shocking: forcing an American withdrawal and reunifying Vietnam under his communist government. American diplomats would do well to bear in mind that that’s the example that remains an inspiration to North Korea, not its later economic success.
All negotiations take place on the assumption that change is possible, but Kim has shown no signs of deviating from his family’s decadeslong plan to reunify Korea under Pyongyang, whatever the incentives dangled in front of him. To avoid Hanoi becoming the site of yet another embarrassment for an unprepared America, it helps to understand the true symbolic value of the Vietnam analogy from the North Korean perspective—an insight possible only by understanding the deep, little-known history between two of Asia’s survivor military regimes.
For Americans with a casual grasp of the two wars, it’s easy to see Korea and Vietnam as very different engagements with different outcomes. But from the perspective of North Korea, they’re parallel and closely entangled.
Formal relations between North Korea and North Vietnam began soon after the two communist regimes declared their nationhood. North Vietnam came first, declaring its independence from French colonial rule in 1945 in the wake of Japan’s surrender in World War II; three years later, Kim Il Sung formally declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, under Soviet patronage. The two communist nations established formal relations in January 1950. (South Korea, meanwhile, recognized the State of Vietnam under the French puppet ruler Emperor Bao Dai in March 1950.) Leaders in the West also appreciated that the two civil wars were closely tied: France, while attempting to keep control over its Vietnam colony was also fighting under the United Nations flag in Korea, and President Harry Truman saw them as “two fronts in the same struggle.”
Officially, the Korean War fighting ended in the 1953 armistice, leaving the peninsula split into two nations, but Kim Il Sung never dropped his drive to unify Korea under his control, and in the mid-60s he embarked upon a new strategy by actively assisting the North Vietnamese in their own war of unification. In August 1965, Kim told a Chinese delegation visiting North Korea that his government stood ready to provide support of any kind for the North Vietnamese. “We are supporting Vietnam as if it were our own war,” he told a visiting Chinese delegation. “When Vietnam has a request, we will disrupt our own plans in order to try to meet their demands.” Kim also sent North Vietnam thousands of tons of vital materiel for the North Korean war effort.
Then, beginning in the fall of 1966, North Korea sent enough pilots to Vietnam to form an entire fighter regiment—instantly providing North Vietnam with a 50 percent increase in fighter strength. The North Korean pilots arrived just in time: The North Vietnamese were suffering from an acute shortage of pilots due to U.S. bombing campaigns that had pushed their air defense to the brink of collapse. The first North Korean pilots were integrated into a North Vietnamese fighter regiment, and wore North Vietnamese uniforms. This was no token contribution to the war effort: It is reasonable to assume that it kept the North Vietnamese fighter defense alive.
In addition to the fighter regiment, Kim sent North Korean personnel to South Vietnam to work alongside the South Vietnamese communists. Their mission was to observe South Korean soldiers and marines in action. And there were a lot of them to observe: By the end of 1966, the troops deployed under Gen. William Westmoreland included 45,000 South Koreans alongside the 385,000 Americans, making South Korea the second-largest outside force in Vietnam after the United States. Kim’s idea was to get to know the South Koreans well enough to design effective propaganda against them.
Perhaps the greatest contribution that the Vietnam War made to North Korea’s own struggle for unification was to tie down the United States in Vietnam and constrain Washington’s ability to act or respond to events in Korea. The Kim regime never really ceased its provocations: North Korean commandos tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee in January 1968; the raid failed but two days later, North Korea managed to capture a U.S. Navy spy ship, accusing it of spying in territorial waters. Later that year, more than 100 North Korean commandos landed on the South Korean coast to foment revolution among local peasants and fishermen, and the next year, North Korea shot down an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance plane, killing several dozen Americans. America’s failure to respond forcefully led many South Koreans to question Washington’s commitment to their security, and opened a rift between the two allies. But the last thing President Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the American people wanted was yet another Asian war. Kim Il Sung thus had everything to gain and little to lose by helping to keep the United States bogged down in Vietnam.
His fixation on North Vietnam eventually led to a split between the nations, once peace talks began between Washington and Hanoi. Kim Il Sung wanted North Vietnam to continue its armed struggle—the longer it could tie down the Americans in Vietnam, the more freedom of action he had in Korea. North Vietnam, for its part, was irritated by Kim’s constant attempts to equate North Korea’s situation with that of North Vietnam. Relations between the two became frosty after the peace accords in 1973, and deteriorated further in 1978 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime, a North Korean ally. Vietnam snubbed Pyongyang when it normalized relations with South Korea in 1992 and the United States in 1995; Pyongyang’s failure to pay for a 20,000-ton shipment of rice in 1996 further widened the split. Relations between the two countries were close to collapse, and the history of North Korea’s contribution to the Vietnam War was also largely forgotten.
Until 2000. A curious article appearing in Japan’s Asahi Shinbun reported that then-North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun had visited the small cemetery in Vietnam dedicated to the 14 North Korean pilots killed in the Vietnam War. It also reported that the North Korean government mounted an exhibition of documents and material relating to North Korea’s assistance to North Vietnam during the war at the North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed Forces building in Pyongyang.
It was North Korea’s first public acknowledgment that it had participated in the Vietnam War.
Shortly thereafter, Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father) ordered the remains of the 14 pilots to be repatriated and reburied at home in a cemetery for heroes of the People’s Armed Forces. The remains were relocated to North Korea in September 2002, while the cemetery in Bắc Giang Province in Vietnam was preserved as a memorial, now “an enduring symbol of wartime friendship.” Relations between the two countries since then have steadily improved.
As the years passed, however, the countries diverged economically. Vietnam’s communist regime slowly opened up, allowing tourism and free enterprise within its borders, and along the way becoming one of Asia’s success stories. North Korea remained tightly closed, and today is one of the poorest nations in the world, in part because of the Kim regime’s refusal to give up on its dream that it will one day rule the peninsula. Despite the friendship between Vietnam and North Korea, the idea that Pyongyang might replicate Vietnam’s transition to an open-market economy—to say nothing of relinquishing its nuclear weapons and missile programs, as the Trump administration seems to think it might do—remains a pipe dream.
Kim appreciates as well as anyone the differences in the two countries’ situations today. The communist Vietnamese government never had to worry about competing with a prosperous “other” Vietnam in the south, the way North Korea does. The Kim regime would need to think very differently about what an open North Korea might mean for its future, when its citizens are awakened to the reality of a democratic and affluent South Korea.
So far, with Trump, Kim Jong Un has managed to notch successes that his grandfather could have only dreamed of: In dealing one-on-one with an American president, he has given his rogue nation the international platform and prestige it needs to push ahead with interKorean economic cooperation, which will make a mockery of U.N. sanctions by pumping huge amounts of cash into North Korea. This will in turn drive a deeper wedge between the United States and South Korea. Seoul is currently considering lifting its own sanctions, a growing sign that the U.S.-led campaign to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons program is falling apart.
Kim Jong Un’s drive toward unification, a legacy of his father and grandfather, continues unabated, though unlike his grandfather, he doesn’t appear to be eager to wage war against the United States. His nuclear weapons program was conceived, instead, to compel a peaceful withdrawal of American troops, the most important enabling step for achieving the ultimate goal of reunification. Despite the single-mindedness of the Kim family regime, there are still people in the foreign policy community—South Korea’s included— who are sanguine enough to think that Kim may give up his nuclear weapons to follow the Vietnam model. In touting that model for North Korea, Trump would be wise to watch out what he wishes for. Vietnam is a certainly a shining example for North Korea—just not in the way the Trump administration thinks it is.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Sheila Miyoshi Jager