Washington: President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his next summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Vietnam carries a rich historical irony: The site of the US’s biggest Cold War quagmire may be where America moves to finally end that era’s most enduring conflict.
The Southeast Asian nation’s selection for Trump and Kim’s second meeting on February 27-28 says as much about how the world has changed since the Cold War as it does about past rivalries. Vietnam’s journey from American foe to budding US security partner could offer Kim a road map for making peace with the world’s sole superpower.
1. Why Vietnam?
For starters, trust. Both Trump and Kim, whose regime that has been locked in hostilities with the US for almost 70 years, have intense security demands. Vietnam has been building military ties with the US to balance against a rising China and — like Singapore, the host of the first Trump-Kim summit in June — is among four dozen countries with a North Korean embassy. Moreover, Kim, who must rely on Chinese loaner aircraft and ageing Russian-built passenger jets, can reach the communist country by flying over friendly territory.
2. What city will host the summit?
It hasn’t been announced. While Vietnam’s more than 3,000km of coastline offers plenty of possible venues, talks have so far focused on the northern capital of Hanoi and the central port of Danang. Hanoi boasts access to services, but crowded streets where luxury cars battle scooters for space. Danang — where the Marines first landed in 1965 — offers sandy beaches, scenic backdrops and an airport that once served as a major US airbase. A third possibility is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
3. How did the US and Vietnam mend ties?
The two sides have steadily improved ties since President Bill Clinton lifted the US trade embargo in 1994 and began normalising relations. Today, the US is Vietnam’s third-biggest trading partner — behind China and South Korea — and security ties are close enough for an American aircraft carrier to visit Danang in March. A big reason has been a desire to hedge against Beijing, whose disputes with Hanoi have turned bloody over the years. That evolution could prove instructive if Kim secures a peace declaration to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War in his summit with Trump.
4. How close are North Korea and Vietnam?
Despite their shared Marxist roots, North Korean-Vietnamese ties soured as the communist bloc fractured in the latter Cold War. Kim would be the first North Korean leader to visit the since his grandfather made a trip there in 1964. The two sides have made recent efforts to expand ties, with North Korean state media reporting more than 35 exchanges with Vietnam, including letters, phone calls and civilian exchanges last year. That included a reported informal North Korean apology for involving a Vietnamese woman in the assassination of Kim’s half-brother in 2017.
5. What does Vietnam get from hosting?
The first Trump-Kim summit drew some 3,000 journalists to Singapore, boosting its hospitality industry and generating tens of millions of dollars of media exposure. While a second meeting would probably draw less attention to Vietnam, it could still provide a valuable moment in the international spotlight for one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The Vietnamese foreign ministry said it would work to “ensure the success” of the meeting and support “dialogue to maintain peace, security and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
6. How prepared is Vietnam?
Although Vietnam lacks Singapore’s reputation for efficient event management, the summit presents the developing nation another opportunity to show it can manage a global event. Vietnam hosted the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation events in Danang, attended by Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hanoi also hosted the regional World Economic Forum last year. Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party should be able to maintain tight security and keep would-be onlookers far from Trump and Kim.