VAN TAN, Vietnam — In a grove of trees outside this village north of Hanoi, a small memorial serves as a reminder of the era when North Korea and North Vietnam stood together against “American aggression,” as the war was known here.
Fourteen headstones mark the original resting place of officers and men from the Korean People’s Army, most of them North Korean fighter pilots who secretly flew for the North Vietnamese air force and lost their lives between 1965 and 1968.
“We considered each other brothers in the battle against American imperialism,” said 75-year-old Do Thi Hoa, a former Vietnamese ambassador to North Korea.
When President Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week to discuss rapprochement and denuclearization, Washington will point to their host country as a model: Transforming itself since the war, Vietnam “took the plunge into the big ocean” of global trade, in its own words, to become a vibrant fast-growing market economy that enjoys a close relationship with its former American foes.
“In light of the once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today, I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong Un: President Trump believes your country can replicate this path,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a trip to Vietnam in July.
“It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment. The miracle could be yours; it can be your miracle in North Korea as well.”
In Hanoi’s Museum of Military History, the wreckage of B-52s shot down by the Vietnamese are displayed as reminders of the American bombs that rained down on the city.
But while North Koreans are still taught to hate “cunning American wolves,” Vietnamese people have embraced Hollywood, KFC and the American Dream.
More than four decades since the end of the Vietnam War, an astounding 84 percent of Vietnamese people had a favorable view of the United States in 2017, according to Pew Research Center, higher than any other foreign country surveyed and just one percentage point below the 85 percent of Americans holding a similar view.
It is enticing to think that North Korea could transform in a similar way, but it is hardly realistic, many experts say.
North Korea’s relationship with Vietnam collapsed in the 1970s, when Kim Il Sung threw his backing behind genocidal Cambodian leader Pol Pot, who loathed Vietnam. Hanoi’s subsequent invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot set it at loggerheads with North Korea. The Vietnamese embassy in Pyongyang shrank from 20 staff members to just seven, Do said.
As Vietnam embraced market reforms and established diplomatic relations with the United States, the fanatical rulers of Pyongyang saw more betrayal.
“They never said it officially, but we all understood they were not happy when we started to make friends with our previous enemy,” said Do.
But it is not only Vietnam’s relationships with North Korea and the United States that have been upended since the mid-1970s.
An hour’s drive west of that largely forgotten memorial to North Korean pilots, there is a potent symbol of Vietnam’s transformation: a massive Samsung factory complex that employs more than 60,000 people. At its center, a huge windowless building surrounded by fences, watchtowers and dormitories — designed not to keep workers from escaping but to keep industrial spies out.
South Korean conglomerate Samsung makes a third of its global production in Vietnam, has invested more than $17 billion here, and accounts for a quarter of Vietnam’s total exports. South Korea was Vietnam’s second largest foreign direct investor in 2018, after Japan.
North Korea was the third nation to grant North Vietnam diplomatic recognition in 1950, after the Soviet Union and China, but today, Hanoi’s relationship with Seoul is far deeper than it ever was with Pyongyang. It is founded not just on business but also on tourism and culture, said Pham Hong Thai at the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences (VASS). K-pop and K-dramas are very popular here.
When Kim Jong Un visits this week, he may promote the idea that his country will follow the Vietnamese path. Japan newspaper Sankei Shimbun predicts he will visit a Samsung factory, while the South Korean government also says he is interested in Vietnam’s economic model.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Vietnam in December during a four-nation tour, stopping at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, an academy of agricultural sciences and the picturesque Haiphong Bay. Other officials from the north have also come to learn from Vietnam’s experience in mining and fisheries, and its success in attracting foreign investment, says Pham at VASS, which is a government think tank.
It is also rumored that Kim will visit Halong Bay, as his grandfather Kim Il did in 1964, but not only to wonder at its emerald seas and limestone karsts: He is desperately keen to develop a tourism project at Wonsan, a port city on his country’s eastern coast.
While it is clear that Kim would like to establish some carefully walled-off tourism and economic development zones, and learn from Vietnam’s experience in that regard, there is a vast difference between that and truly reforming the country’s economy.
“North Korea’s publicly demonstrated interest in Vietnam’s experience is somewhat for show,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “It is meant to attract international support for North Korea’s economy, even if the Kim regime remains set on minimizing foreign influence in the country and may not intend to denuclearize.”
Indeed, North Korea’s tolerance of private traders and markets has been matched by reports of a renewed crackdown on foreign cultural influences, such as videos of South Korean dramas and movies.
“Whatever happens with economic development, the government will be very, very, very careful to remain in control,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center think tank. “They would rather stay poor than lose power.”
Vietnam’s economic transformation has been enabled by granting its people significant freedoms — to travel, to trade, to communicate with and learn from foreigners — just as China’s success came by unleashing its people’s entrepreneurial ability.
“To get rich is glorious,” goes the phrase commonly attributed to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Yet it is impossible to imagine Kim Jong Un making such a bold statement because that would make South Korea roughly 20 times as glorious as the North. Vietnam’s communists were in a much stronger position to undertake risky economic restructuring because they had unified the country before doing so.
Silberstein warns against wishful thinking when it comes to North Korea, as well as the urge to suggest the country will simply follow another nation’s model.
“Can they learn from Vietnam? Absolutely. And from China? Definitely. But are there things particular to North Korea that will remain particular to North Korea? Definitely,” he said. “It’s a unique country in the level of social control. So why couldn’t it follow a unique combination of economic development under a very, very rigid dictatorship that still controls the flow of information?”
Products branded “Made in North Korea” would not be attractive in the global marketplace as long as the country runs prison camps, for example.
The remains of the 14 North Koreans in Van Tan were repatriated in 2002.
Do Thi Hoa was among hundreds of young North Vietnamese who studied in Pyongyang in the 1960s, before being recruited to join the Vietnamese embassy and rising to serve as ambassador. She says Vietnam is still grateful for the support it received from North Korea at that time.
Young Vietnamese, however, look not to the brutal cultists in Pyongyang but to the opportunities represented by the United States and South Korea. For the young people of North Korea, there are, as yet, no such signposts.