Top leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong Un stayed in Vietnam from Feb. 26 to March 2, 2019. There were two important issues in his latest outbound trip itinerary: one was the meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, and the other was an official visit to Vietnam.
Kim and Trump arrived in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, on Feb. 26, one day before their second summit. Their meeting ended on Feb. 28 without hammering out a deal for peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. After their summit, President Trump left Vietnam directly but Kim stayed and paid an “official goodwill visit” to the country from March 1 to 2.
Rome was not built in a day. We cannot expect the deep-rooted nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula to be resolved in just one or two negotiations. While maintaining patience and continuing talks, it is time for the DPRK to put some emphasis on economic construction and improve citizens’ living standards. In his 2019 New Year address, Kim expressed his hope for shifting priorities to economic development after some signs of easing in the tensions with the United States.
According to insiders, if the DPRK wants to kick off some economic and political reforms, it has at least three examples to learn from — China, Singapore and Vietnam.
China has not only achieved remarkable economic success in past years, but has also served as the most reliable and trustworthy friend of the DPRK in the world. The two countries have been keeping a friendly relationship for many decades. Before Kim’s every meeting with Trump, he went to China to seek advice. In June last year, Kim even boarded an Air China special flight to Singapore to attend his first meeting with President Trump. And for their second summit this time, Kim chose to go to Vietnam by train. It took his special green train, adorned with yellow stripes, 60 hours to cross China and reached a border town between China and Vietnam on Feb. 26.
Singapore is also a good pace-setter for the DPRK. The small country now boasts high GDP per capita, well-equipped infrastructure, and balanced economic and social development. That may be the reason why the tiny port nation was chosen as the place for the first DPRK-U.S. meeting.
As for Vietnam, the southern part of the country was once a capitalist system while the northern part of the country was communist. Such a divided status was remarkably similar to the present situation on the Korean Peninsula. After China’s reform and opening up in 1978, Vietnam followed suit in 1986 and kicked off its own reform. The country gradually reduced and even canceled subsidies to state-owned enterprises, and set up industrial zones to attract foreign investments. In its countryside, land usufruct was distributed to peasants, so as to give more vitality to farming and farmers. In 2007, Vietnam successfully joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), which meant that its reforming efforts had been recognized by the international communities.
The DPRK can surely learn a lot from the experiences of others, but the country should make its own development track based on its unique present situation. Firstly, the situation facing the DPRK nowadays is totally different from that of China in the 1970s and Vietnam in the 1980s. The DPRK now needs to boost its economy in the context of U.S.-led international sanctions as a tool of coercion. Secondly, the special political regime in the DPRK makes bold and resolute reforms virtually impossible for the time being. Moreover, the DPRK also lacks a sufficient talent pool to support its sustainable economic development.
Under these circumstances, the reform in the DPRK must be a long, difficult and step-by-step process. In the initial stage, it may be a good choice for the country to take small steps and make tentative efforts in some not-so-sensitive sectors such as tourism and rural vitalization.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)