You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

North Korea Is Not Vietnam

Expecting the brutally repressive state to liberalize magically the way Vietnam did is a pipe dream.

Trump and Kim impersonators pose optimistically in Hanoi. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

Nine years ago, when I lived in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, I overheard three North Korean men having beers by a hotel pool. I tried to strike up a conversation with them in my elementary Korean.

“We are here to study the path of Vietnam,” one of them told me. The trip was funded and directed by the North Korean state. “We are touring factories and farms. It is about learning from our friends in Vietnam. We want to know how they got to where they are.”

This week, Hanoi, Vietnam, is abuzz with flower bouquets, patriotic flags and armored vehicles for Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un. For both the U.S. and North Korean sides, as well as their Vietnamese hosts, the symbolism of this location—once the capital of Communist North Vietnam, at war with the U.S.—is obvious.

“Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump said in a tweet. “The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un.”

“I would say to our North Korean friends that as long as they have a conflict with the United States, they will not be able to develop their economy properly,” Major General Le Van Cuong, the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security, perhaps Vietnam’s most heavy-fisted and paranoid government ministry, surprisingly told The New York Times earlier this week.

The idea that North Korea can become another re-unification, liberalization, and development success story like Vietnam sounds great, doesn’t it? The two countries, after all, have much in common, at least on the surface: Both suffered through colonial rule, tragic national divisions between a communist north and capitalistic south, devastating conflicts with the U.S., and disastrous post-revolutionary experiments in communism. Today, one is a massive American trading partner and a growing military ally, though still distant and reticent. The other is about as economically dysfunctional and politically repressive as it’s possible for a state to be.

But what President Trump’s Twitter advice, as well as the optimistic North Korea-North Vietnam comparisons in multiple news and analysis outlets in the past week, ignore is that North Korea is in a deeper hole even than Vietnam in its most isolated, post-Vietnam War period. North Korea almost certainly isn’t about to open up and follow the Vietnamese model. Two crippling problems stand in the way.

First, the garrison kingdom is ruled by a ruthless, three-generation family dynasty—those at the top of the brutally repressive system almost definitionally having little to gain, and everything to lose, through change. The former dictator Kim Jong Il chose to keep pursuing a costly nuclear program even as Cold War-era Soviet subsidies collapsed, plunging his country into a famine that killed some one million people. While Vietnam was restoring ties with the U.S. in 1995, North Korea was isolating itself further, culminating in a currency “reform” in 2009 that made its citizens even poorer.

The Dear Leader’s son, the current leader Kim Jong Un, is in his eighth year in power. Despite speculation early on that he would be a “reformer,” he’s been even more authoritarian, turning his back on human rights. He has cracked down on black marketeers similar to the ones who first pressured Vietnam to open up to capitalism. He’s stepped up border security against fleeing refugees. Consolidating power and purging rivals, he executed his uncle by marriage and ordered the assassination of his half-brother at an airport in Malaysia. Nuclear weapons are his ultimate guarantor of the throne.

Communist Vietnam chose not to embrace the dynasty model. Instead, its wartime leadership was marked by a star system of national heroes who came and went: the nationalists Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, later giving way to the hardline communist Le Duan and the peace negotiator and Nobel winner Le Duc Tho. The eldest sons of these men did not expect to inherit the top post. Many of them, in fact, were suspicious of the North Korean personality cult. After 1975, amidst galloping post-war inflation and food shortages, Vietnam abandoned the “star system” of leaders entirely, setting up a stable of bureaucrats who made more routine and systematic decisions, decentralized across regions and factions. More people had input, and more urged for change (unlike North Korea, where the word of the de facto monarchy is like a page out of the Bible). The result was détente.

The second crucial reason North Korea is unlikely to open up in the near future is that its continued war on paper with the U.S. and South Korea is a source of great legitimacy for its regime. United Nations Command and North Korea signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, halting the Korean War fighting of 1950 to 1953—but not formally ending the conflict. South Korea refused to sign.

To this day, North Korea’s regime is built on the idea of the enemy everywhere, of the need to prepare its people for an impending American invasion. Propaganda warns of the never-ending emergency and the need to protect the pure and innocent North Korean people, a master race under threat. North Korean schoolchildren have learned math by adding up how many “American bastards” are killed in battles. When I visited a North Korean elementary school two years ago, I was taken aback, but not surprised, by the nuclear missiles painted on the walls, and the playground with slides in the shape of tanks and fighter jets.

As long as North Korea has no peace treaty or unification with South Korea, it has an enemy. You don’t open the economy to your enemy.

North Vietnam reunified with South Vietnam by force, completing the revolution that gave the communist party so much legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters. The Communist Party of Vietnam had to find a new “revolution” to peddle to its people, so it promised growth and abundance, heralding projects like its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2005. Vietnam has every reason to keep warming up to the U.S., its biggest trading partner. And such economic success based on free trade ironically keeps the communist party in power.

Those suggesting North Korea follow the Vietnamese model probably aren’t thinking of having Kim Jong Un annex South Korea. They’re thinking of economic liberalization as an unstoppable, magical force transcending politics—which has repeatedly been the mistake people make when assuming North Korea is forever on the brink of change. The men I met in Ho Chi Minh city doubtless returned to Pyongyang with plenty of action items. I’ve yet to see them on the nightly news, technocrats at the forefront of a vast North Korean economic policy overhaul.

Vietnam had the right leaders, despite their well-documented flaws, at just the right time—as the Cold War was winding down, and the markets were set to open globally. North Korea has no such benefit.