While rumors in late December and early January posited Vietnam as a possible host nation for U.S. President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and as much was confirmed by Trump in his 2019 State of the Union address, it was not clear whether Vietnam’s capital Hanoi or the coastal city of Danang would be selected as the actual site for the meeting.
It was finally revealed by Trump via his usual communication channel – Twitter – that Hanoi was the venue for the much-anticipated meeting. It is most likely that the choice of venue was made with consent from Kim; thus the decision also gave clues as to North Korea’s intentions in participating in, and plans for the upcoming Hanoi summit.
First, if Kim agreed to meet with Trump for the first time in Singapore to minimize the security risk and maximize the media exposure for the meeting, Hanoi being selected as the venue for their second meeting can be read as a signal from Kim to the international community and his own domestic audience of his determination to reform North Korea economically.
One of the few communist states that survived through the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Vietnam (alongside with China) is a rare case in which rapid economic growth did not lead to the collapse of the one-party political system. As regime survival is a top priority for Kim in carrying out any economic reform, he has only two successful models to learn from, one of which is Vietnam. Thus, it seems clear that Kim wants to replicate the steps made by Vietnam during the 1980s in escaping from political isolation by being “a friend and reliable partner of all countries in the international community,” and achieving unprecedented growth by abandoning the centralized model of economic development.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s visit to Vietnam last December was a precursor for Kim’s signaling. In addition to a formal meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh, and a courtesy call to the Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Ri made clear North Korea’s intention to learn from Vietnam’s experience with opening an economy by spending some time in the Hoa Lac Hi-Tech Park in Hanoi and visiting the coastal province of Quang Ninh, the leadership of which has been very enthusiastic and effective in calling for domestic and foreign investors to fund projects in their province.
Second, one can also make some educated guesses regarding Kim’s schedule before, during, and after the February 27-28 meeting by his selection of Hanoi as just his fourth destination abroad since taking over the leadership of North Korea (in addition to Singapore, Kim has visited both Beijing and Dalian in China). While Danang is famous for its beaches and remote resorts suitable for secret meetings, it is far from the headquarters of the Communist Party and the government of Vietnam. Hanoi is the capital and political center of Vietnam. Thus, in the third visit of a North Korean leader to Vietnam, more than half a century after the two visits by Kim Il Sung to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1958 and 1964, Kim Il Sung’s grandson would naturally want to meet with the leadership of the Party and the government of Vietnam, namely Party Chief-cum-President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh has just begun a two-day visit in North Korea to return his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho’s visit to Vietnam last year. The foreign minister is likely to make the necessary arrangements for these important meetings from Vietnam’s point of view. Aside from the normal diplomatic contents of any state visit, it is possible that Kim might broach the subject of lessons learned from the Doi Moi (“Reformation”) policy of Vietnam during the 1980s – something that Vietnamese senior officials have repeatedly expressed their willingness to share with North Korea.
Finally, thanks to the two-day span of the meeting with Trump, Kim could even have spare time to visit a few places in or near Hanoi that exemplify the support of North Korea for its fraternal nation during and after the Vietnam War and indicate the presence, albeit minor, of North Korea in Vietnam’s capital such as the elite Viet-Trieu (Vietnam-Korea) kindergarten established in Hanoi in 1978 with North Korea’s financial support; the North Korean embassy to Vietnam, which is located not far from the Chinese embassy in one of the most beautiful streets of the French Quarter; or the Binh Nhuong Quan (Pyongyang Restaurant) run by the North Korean government in the middle of a new quarter of high-rise apartment complexes, where many South Korean expats reside in Hanoi. And if Kim is not bothered by traveling to the rural areas surrounding Hanoi, only 60 km to the northeast is the DPRK Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lang Giang, Bac Giang where 14 North Korean volunteer pilots who had taught and fought alongside their North Vietnamese comrades during the Vietnam War before perishing in air fights against American pilots were interred. Despite the symbolic value, such scenario is not likely, though, due to the fact that the remains were repatriated in 2002, and Vietnamese and North Korean officials might find the visit too sensitive given the context of the Trump-Kim meeting. Instead, Kim might want to visit successful evidence of economic reform under state control in Vietnam such as the Viettel Group — Vietnam’s biggest mobile network operator wholly owned and operated by the Ministry of Defense of Vietnam.
At the end of the day, however, Kim will go to Hanoi first and foremost to meet Trump with the discussion likely to focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and possible sanctions relief by the United States. On this front, one cannot envision any significant progress in the negotiation given the differences between two sides on even fundamental points like the interpretation of the “denuclearization” concept. Thus, possible breakthroughs in other aspects like negotiation toward a mutual declaration to end the war in the Korean Peninsula, or the curious details of Kim’s activities in Hanoi, some of which are predicted above, would probably take center stage instead.
Viet Phuong Nguyen is a post-doctoral fellow with the Managing the Atom Project and International Security Program of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.