14.03.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Results of the North Korean leader’s visit to Vietnam


In previous reports on Kim Jong-un’s visit, we described his arrival in Vietnam and his meeting with the President of the United States, however, the program Kim Jong-un had scheduled for his visit did not end there.

In the afternoon on 1 March, the Supreme Leader of North Korea met with Secretary General of the Communist party of Vietnam and the country’s President Nguyen Phu Trong. Kim also met with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam and Chairwoman of the National Assembly of Vietnam Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

On the morning of 2 March, Kim Jong-un visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the resting place of Ho Chi Minh who was the first President of Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Kim Jong-un had been scheduled to leave Hanoi in the afternoon, after a meeting with representatives from Vietnam’s business community. However, changes were made to the program for the visit. The visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the wreath he laid there attracted the attention of the media in Hong Kong, who were quick to highlight that Kim had not visited the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong during any of his four visits to China.

On the same day, on 2 March, Kim Jong-un left Hanoi.

According to the report from the Korean Central News Agency, during his visit, the North Korean Leader expressed hope for stepped-up cooperation and exchanges with Vietnam in all areas, as well as a hope of taking their bilateral relations to a new level:  “Through active party-to-party and country-to-country contacts, we should normalize cooperation and exchanges in all areas, ranging from the economy, science and technology, defense, sports, culture, arts, publications and news media, and we should take [our bilateral] relations to a new level.”  If you wade through the official rhetoric, what Kim achieved was quite modest. There were calls for increasing cooperation, but no fixed agreement has been made, and judging by the fact that the Korean Central News Agency does not mention any joint declaration, it seems there hasn’t been one of those either.

“The unwavering position of our country and our party is to inherit the friendly cooperative relations between the two countries and the two parties [which have been passed down] through generations [and are] based on blood,” Kim added. This statement is of no less importance for two reasons. First of all, Kim is not only talking about cooperation between the two countries, he also specifically emphasized parties, which would imply that there is a close proximity of ideologies (which by the way, is the case with China). Secondly, this rhetoric on friendship is sealed with blood: pilots from North Korea fought in the Vietnam War, and according to some reports, there were also North Korean propaganda/psychological warfare specialists there.  Diplomatic relations between the countries date back to 1950.

What is also quite interesting is that the visit was previously referred to as a state visit, but in later reports from the Korean Central News Agency its status was lowered to an “official friendly visit”.

According to the Vietnamese media, Kim was also impressed by the country’s economic growth, which has led experts in South Korea to believe that it is highly likely that Kim will use the Vietnamese model of economic growth to achieve economic prosperity in North Korea. However, Kim’s expected visit to Vietnamese industrial facilities (with a highly anticipated visit to the Samsung Electronics smartphone factory) did not happen, which has given rise to a lot of speculation in the South Korean media.  Instead, Kim made a ceremonial visit to his Embassy, where he gave his usual guidance and had his photograph taken as a souvenir. The visit was limited because on 27 February, Deputy Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Lee Soo-yeon foreign policy and Oh Soo-yeon responsible for the economy, along with the leader of the Samjiyon Orchestra Hyon Song-wol took a trip to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous tourist attraction—Ha Long Bay—before continuing on to the port city of Haiphong, where they toured the VinFast Car Assembly Plant and other industrial and agricultural facilities.

On the morning of 4 March, Kim’s special train passed through Tianjin without making any long stops. Despite the previous rumors, the North Korea’s Supreme Leader did not meet with China’s leader, which also provides food for thought.

Kim arrived in Pyongyang in the early morning on 5 March. The report from the Korean Central News Agency insisted that Kim Jong-un had returned home following an “official friendly visit” to Vietnam, and there was no mention of the North Korean-United States Hanoi Summit.

The fact that the visit did not lead to a major breakthrough had a number of anti-Pyongyang experts talking, who wrote the whole trip off as a fiasco, but there was some modest success. In our view, the Vietnamese part of the visit should not be overlooked.

Firstly, during his visit, Kim expressed a desire to strengthen North Korean friendship not only with China, but also with other countries from the general socialist camp. This is very important in terms of understanding how the regime is positioning itself. Moreover, taking relations between China and Vietnam into account, it is clear that Kim wishes to remain within the socialist camp but he also wants to take an equidistant position at the same time, to avoid turning into Beijing’s satellite.

And if you consider things in terms of the protocol of receptions and send farewells, the visit went very well.

Secondly, North Korea may still be interested in learning from the Vietnamese experience of reforms: after all, Kim has taken a look at industrial facilities which could be important, even if they do not reach the highest standard, and there is still no room for a great degree of economic cooperation due to the current level of sanctions. It seems that North Korea’s Dear Leader only focused on examining facilities which could offer lessons that are applicable to North Korea’s current situation.

Finally, Kim could be interested in finding out how Hanoi was able to take a fresh look at relations with Washington despite the devastation of the Vietnam war.

Sure enough, Trump is even being called “his Excellency” in the North Korean media today, and America is being called America (miguk), rather than “American imperialism(mije)”, although slogans like “Destroy the sworn enemy of the Korean people – American imperialism” remain on North Korean military equipment. There are still so-called “rooms for class education” in schools and workplaces, though “museums of hatred towards the United States, Japan and South Korean puppets” would make a more fitting name for them, judging by their content.

But a new leaf could be turned over pretty quickly, and relations between North Korea and the United States could resemble the model of current relations between America and Vietnam, where no one has forgotten about the war and its war crimes, but at the end of the day modern America and the Americans represent a truly different America.

Where and when will Kim Jong-un’s next visit be? Opinions are divided, but residents of the Russian Federation might catch a glimpse of the Supreme Leader’s special train in 2019.

 Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.