February 26, 2019 | 11:17 pm PT

Vietnam takeaway for North Korea: how to take calculated risks

Vietnam takeaway for North Korea: how to take calculated risks
Ho Chi Minh city aerial panoramic view from Saigon Skydeck observation deck in Bitexco Financial Tower in Vietnam. Photo by Shutterstock/saiko3p

As hosts of the second Trump-Kim summit, Vietnam has a hugely important role to play.

Sesto Vecchi, lawyer

Sesto Vecchi, lawyer

North Korea is wary of foreigners, exercises tight control, is confronted by a vocal American government, has an impoverished population, and its foreign reserves are near zero. While this describes North Korea today, it also describes Vietnam in 1986 when Vietnam began to peek out from behind the Iron Curtain.

The world has dramatically changed in these 30 years, but North Korea has remained relatively isolated and wary. But, as was the case with Vietnam, there are many countries that would welcome change in North Korea, and, on the right terms, rush to help.

Firstly, there is South Korea which has often tried and often failed to establish a solid, long term, mutually beneficial, commercial relationship. While I don’t pretend to know what the current American administration will do, I believe that in the right circumstances, it will help North Korea to modernize.

Almost certainly, North Korea could expect overseas development assistance (ODA) from Europe and Japan. The World Bank will be an eager and substantial source of help. Many smaller countries will provide encouragement and material help. These are the same circumstances that existed just before Vietnam emerged, and before it began to benefit so dramatically from countries and people prepared to help.

North Korea and Vietnam were longtime cold war allies. North Korea provided material support during the American War. On this visit, North Korea’s leadership should talk with its former ally, and should look at how, since the days of Doi moi reform, Vietnam has so completely transformed itself, with the willing, often enthusiastic, help of others.

It has quickly moved from a backward, underperforming economy to one of the darlings of the developing world. By almost every economic measure, Vietnam’s changes have been explosive: GDP at or near 6.8 percent in the past five years, robust two way trade of over $480 billion in 2018; foreign exchange reserves that topped $65 billion in 2018. Its poverty rate has dropped to 5.4 percent. It is urbanizing, but its agricultural production is increasing. Education has improved. Healthcare now reaches many more people.

If North Korea fears that its political system will collapse in the face of all of this prosperity, it should again look at Vietnam. Yes, there has been a change in governance in Vietnam. We start with the broad observation, that in Vietnam, the population does not fear the government whatever their disagreements. I don’t know if this can be said equally of North Korea’s citizens.

Vietnam’s government has delivered prosperity in an unprecedented way with new highways, housing, an improved standard of living and much more. It is open to foreigners, and it embraces change. Public services are evolving. The public is invited to comment in a meaningful way on new laws, before they are enacted. The newspapers are filled each day with tales of legal redress of corruption or maladministration as political persons, bureaucrats and commercial people are called to account.

But, in fact, and despite changes in the political system, the manner of selection of country’s leadership remains constant. Acts designed to overthrow the government are prohibited. That is to say, significant economic changes have occurred in Vietnam but without massive political change.

It is clearly also in Vietnam’s own interest to help North Korea to modernize. By being proactive, Vietnam would certainly further polish its image as an emerging and responsible actor. Any level of soft leadership which it provides will be applauded by its neighbors and by countries of all political colors.

So North Korea’s leadership should carefully look around during this summit meeting. The evidence of transformation is everywhere. It will see the significant changes that that have occurred and recognize that change began at a point comparable to where North Korea is today. It should ponder the possibilities, and it should take comfort that the risks are manageable.

If North Korea wishes to take a prudent economic and political path to the modern world, Vietnam is a perfect model.

*Sesto Vecchi is managing partner of Ho Chi Minh City-based Russin & Vecchi law firm. The opinions expressed are his own.