Many headlines from Hanoi read “Trump/Kim Summit Ends in Failure.”
Having just returned from reporting on the summit from both Vietnam and South Korea, the reality requires greater nuance.
South Korea and Vietnam have this in common: Each has served as the theatre of battle for two brutal and lasting wars with significant American involvement. And each has a valuable lesson for North Korea.
These days, West Hanoi is booming. Reportedly, Vietnam’s GDP has been growing at 7 percent for six years. But to my eye, it seems closer to 500 percent. Tall buildings that serve businesses and provide housing have sprung up from former shanty towns. Farmers, who for generations have toiled in the fields outside Hanoi, are moving to the city and joining the burgeoning working middle class.
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There is a stunning JW Marriott in West Hanoi where President Trump and his traveling crew stayed during the week.
Downstairs where Trump held his press conference, there is a bar called the ‘Cool Cats Jazz Club.’ The bartender – born in June 1992 – says the surrounding area and its growth has surprised even him. “This used to be a few low-lying buildings and the rest was rice fields,” he says.
Vietnam embarked on specific market reforms, but kept the ruling Communist Party in control. It is a saggy form of Communism, and not something Lenin would have accepted in the Soviet Union. Yet, it seems to benefit both the locals who emerge into a different, prosperous life and the loyal party members, who keep their positions in government. So far, it seems as if everyone is winning.
But the Vietnamese government will admit that its current economic boom – which helped move this country from its former Third World status to “an emerging market” – did not begin until it normalized relations with the United States 23 years ago, during the administration of President Clinton.
Years ago, I was in Vietnam just before the change occurred. As a 26-year-old backpacker, I took advantage of the changing laws and toured Vietnam in December 1992. Locals were allowed to take partial ownership in cafes and hotels. The country seemed to be on its hands and knees from years of war, searching for a new, secure footing. Travel was basic, barely manageable.
Today Hanoi bustles with commerce and motor scooters. They seem to buzz like hornets in an immediate and unstoppable hurry. And every driver has a smartphone in their pocket. There is a revolution of accessible information underway globally.
They are on IG and WhatsApp and Facebook and they are connected to each other and to a world outside their own borders. Information influences policy, it moves society and it can wield the power to change governments.
Chairman Kim Jung of North Korea knows this. The information revolution has him surrounded and it is only a question of time before it slowly corrodes his iron grip.
The arc of modern development currently runs against his hermetic kingdom. I believe he is, in fact, trying to adopt certain market reforms that will improve the standing for many within his own country and lead to a more secure economic future. This is why he is insistent on getting sanctions relief. He needs to meet and satisfy the inexorable pressure that comes in a world that is increasingly global. At the same time, he wants badly to maintain his nuclear capability, the key to his family’s grip on power. But when information is so easily transportable, secrets are harder to keep. Autonomous rule is harder to maintain.
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So how does he do it? How does he move toward market reforms, maintain power and keep at least part of his nuclear stockpile?
That is his dilemma. Call it Kim’s choice.
Of course, he can look to his southern neighbor to see the progress first hand.
I visited South Korea on my way home from the summit. Seoul is a massive city – population 10 million plus. And it is bumping. Modern and clean and efficient. In my 25 hours there, I only scratched the skin of this deeply textured country. I joined a group to visit the DMZ, about an hour’s drive north from Seoul.
A short drive out of the city, the left side of the road is lined with barbed wire. Incursions by North Korean spies, explains Grace, our guide, have made it necessary. To depart such a modern, developed world capital and to be immediately consumed by the long-standing and unsettled conflict is startling.
The DMZ visit reminded me of being in West Berlin in 1986. Confined, surrounded by a system of demand and decay. You know instinctively it can’t last. But how much longer can it withstand the pressures of a world in a constant bull market? Kim knows this.
I called Grace over for a question. “Do you believe your country would have developed the way it has without the presence of 28,000 American forces?”
“No,” she says flatly. “Not possible.”
Peering through a high powered set of binoculars across the 1.6-kilometer stretch of the DMZ, I spotted two people who were walking through a field and climbing over a berm. They were dressed in dark, colorless clothing characteristic of a Communist regime. The most wily among their leaders – the most paranoid, the most ruthless – make it their business to last as long as possible.
Back in Seoul, I sat in my hotel room watching television news recapping Chairman Kim’s visit to Hanoi in Korean. He stayed an extra 36 hours for an official visit after Team 45 was wheels up for Washington. It strikes the obvious as you watch a background report on North Korea’s nuclear program – Kim had completed something that was started by his grandfather. In the midst of his starving, forbidden kingdom – with limited access and limited assistance from outside his sealed borders – he achieved nuclear status. In this world today, he stands out.
The pitch from President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might appeal to many: You give up your nukes, we will end the sanctions and North Korea can prosper like your neighbors to the South and your Communist brethren in Vietnam.
It is a compelling sale, but today there is no sign Kim is willing to embrace it. After Hanoi, he seems to be moving forward at his own, self-preserving speed.