On May 23, 2016, the United States government released an official statement praising Vietnam’s resolute support for the implementation of United Nations (UN) sanctions against North Korea. Vietnam’s criticisms of DPRK aggression coincided with Washington’s decision to lift its long-standing arms embargo on Vietnam and U.S. military pledges to bolster Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities against China.
The Vietnamese government’s emphatic support for America’s position on the DPRK surprised some observers, as Hanoi retains a long-standing strategic partnership with North Korea. Notwithstanding this partnership, Vietnam’s condemnations of North Korean belligerence are the culmination of bilateral tensions that have been brewing for decades.
Vietnam’s staunch opposition to North Korea’s nuclear tests has caused some commentators to argue that Hanoi could act as a mediator between the United States and North Korea. A successful mediation role could enhance Vietnam’s strategic importance to the United States, and result in an expansion of U.S. military assistance to Hanoi.
The Increasingly Tense Partnership Between Vietnam and North Korea
Even though Vietnam has maintained a diplomatic relationship with North Korea since the early 1960s, the Hanoi-Pyongyang partnership has frequently been strained by policy disagreements and economic disputes. These tensions began to surface during the latter stages of the Vietnam War, particularly in 1968, when North Vietnam decided to enter peace negotiations with the United States.
Kim Il-sung vehemently opposed North Vietnam’s peace overtures toward the United States, because he believed that keeping the U.S. mired in Vietnam would increase the geopolitical influence of the Communist bloc in the Asia-Pacific. Kim also feared that peace negotiations involving Washington would grant diplomatic recognition to South Vietnam, which was a close ally of South Korea.
North Korean policymakers were also frustrated by North Vietnam’s rejection of China’s proposed revolutionary alliance bloc in Southeast Asia. North Vietnamese policymakers feared that Vietnam would lose its traditional hegemony over Indochina in the Chinese-led arrangement. North Vietnam also opposed the bloc’s complete exclusion of the Soviet Union from regional affairs. These tensions set the stage for North Korea’s virulent opposition to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Vietnam-North Korea relationship has deteriorated further. Hanoi established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. Vietnam’s diplomatic outreach to Seoul evolved into a full-fledged economic partnership, as economic pragmatism trumped communist ideology as the driver of Vietnam’s foreign policy alignments.
North Korea’s failure to pay Vietnam for 20,000 tons of rice worth $18 million at the height of the famine in 1996 confirmed Pyongyang’s unreliability as an economic partner. Vietnam subsequently scaled back its economic ties to the DPRK to expand its access to South Korean capital.
The economic benefits of cooperating with South Korea, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s 2001 apology for the ROK’s deployment of 300,000 troops on South Vietnam’s behalf during the Vietnam War, convinced Hanoi to intensify its opposition to North Korean belligerence. Vietnam emphasized its support for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula after the 2006 nuclear test. The Vietnamese government also expressed solidarity with South Korea after the North Korean navy sunk the ROK corvette Cheonan in March 2010.
Even though senior North Korean officials visited Vietnam in early June to strengthen the Hanoi-Pyongyang relationship, Vietnam’s opposition to the North Korean government’s aggressive conduct has not wavered. In accordance with UN sanctions, the Vietnamese government banned 12 North Korean nationals from entering the country in July 2016. Vietnam Airlines has also cracked down on North Korean travel to Hanoi. These anti-Pyongyang policies demonstrate the extent of the strains in the Vietnam-North Korea relationship, and Vietnam’s willingness to align with U.S. norms on nuclear non-proliferation.
Vietnam as a Potential Mediator Between the United States and North Korea
The Vietnamese government’s rhetorical emphasis on dialing down tensions on the Korean peninsula has caused some analysts to speculate that Hanoi could act as a mediator between the United States and North Korea. Vietnam’s strengthened alliance with the United States and shared concerns about Chinese adventurism in the Asia-Pacific region provide fertile ground for anti-DPRK cooperation.
Even though Kim Jong-un has rebuffed the idea of direct diplomatic engagement with the United States, there are historical precedents for North Korean diplomacy with the United States via a proxy. During the Cold War, Eastern European communist countries with close ties to Washington like Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia acted as mediators between United States and North Korea. External mediation helped contain North Korean belligerence during the 1970s, after the Nixon administration announced its decision to cut back America’s troop presence in South Korea.
North Korea could be receptive to Vietnamese mediation efforts, as Kim Jong-un has a favorable view of Vietnam’s communist government. North Korean officials view Vietnam’s 1976 reunification under communist rule in defiance of American preferences as a profound show of strength. Vietnam’s economic growth model has also been cited as a potential model for DPRK modernization efforts, as Vietnam has expanded its economy without adopting as many Western economic characteristics as China.
The North Korean state media’s extensive coverage of a cordial November 2015 meeting between DPRK Defense Minister Pak Yong-Sik and Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang demonstrates the symbolic significance of Pyongyang’s relationship with Vietnam. If Vietnam threatens to suspend its diplomatic ties with the DPRK over North Korea’s nuclear tests, Kim might seek to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula to re-establish closer ties with Hanoi.
The Vietnamese government would stand to gain from embracing a mediation role between Pyongyang and Washington, as it could use its leverage over North Korea’s conduct to strengthen its alliance with the United States. If Vietnam assists the United States against North Korea, Hanoi will be able to assuage the Obama administration’s frustration at the Vietnamese Parliament’s decision not to swiftly ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. By demonstrating its value to the United States as a security partner, Vietnam can gain easier access to the US fighter jets and submarines to deter Chinese aggression.
Vietnam’s unexpectedly strident opposition to North Korean belligerence is the product of long-standing strains in the Hanoi-Pyongyang relationship. Vietnam can also use its unique diplomatic leverage over North Korea to consolidate its burgeoning alliance with the United States. The Vietnamese government’s potential ability to contain Kim’s impulsive aggression could make Hanoi critical to the long-term preservation of peace in the Korean peninsula.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.