President Trump, born in 1946, now has another opportunity to go to Vietnam.
At his State of the Union address Tuesday night, the president announced his long-awaited second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It will be held at the end of the month in Vietnam, he said. While Mr. Trump did not disclose the specific location of the meeting, the confab will be in the coastal city of Da Nang, according to multiple sources.
The choice of venue is instructive. Da Nang, a bustling city about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (nee Saigon), combines industry and shipping with resort amenities and beaches. The idea is to show Kim Jong-un the city and say, “you can have this.”
Vietnam, like China, has semisuccessfully married political authoritarianism with economic development. That North Korea can do the same should it disarm is the pitch that the Trump administration has made to the Kim regime. After their last summit, the president rhapsodized about North Korea’s fabulous beaches. “I said, ‘Boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo? Instead of doing [missile launches] you could have the best hotels in the world right there. Think of it from a real estate perspective, you have South Korea, you have China, and they own the land in the middle, how bad is that, right?” he said, recounting his meeting with Mr. Kim.
The Washington Times’ Guy Taylor has reported that the Trump administration is preparing a bevy of economic enticements for the Kim regime to disarm.
But there are reasons to doubt that North Korea can successfully follow the path that China and Vietnam blazed. For one, neither country liberalized until its cult of personality had been disbanded. Deng Xiaoping did not begin his vaunted “opening up and reform” of the Chinese economy until Mao Zedong had died. It would have been impossible to promote free enterprise while the semidivine Mao loomed over the country. Likewise, Vietnam began its own economic liberalization in the mid-1980s, long after Ho Chi Minh had left the scene. Today, Vietnam is governed by faceless technocrats rather than charismatic leaders, and it’s no coincidence that economic liberalization is going backward in China now that Xi Jinping, the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao, is in control.
That makes sense: Not only is free enterprise largely ideologically incompatible with cults of personality — totalitarianism demands total subjection, while human freedom is the lifeblood of capitalism — but to embrace reform was also a tacit admission that Mao and Ho Chi Minh had been wrong. That bodes ill for North Korean reform, where, seven decades into its existence, the Kim cult of personality remains as strong as ever. Mr. Kim also reasonably fears that, given his regime’s decades-long history of unimaginable brutality, he can’t risk true liberalization without meeting the unhappy fate of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauescu.
Another problem is that, by the logic of the regime, North Korea is an unfinished project. One of the Kim dynasty’s central aims is to reunify the Korean peninsula — under its leadership. Its weapons programs have both a defensive and offensive component, deterring would-be invaders and preparing, down the road, for an eventual absorption of the south. It’s highly unlikely that the Kim regime will trade what it views as its rightful claim over the entirety of the Korean peninsula for a few beachfront condos, no matter how nice they might be.
Indeed, in this sense, the analogy between Vietnam and Korea is downright ominous: It wasn’t until North Vietnam had successfully invaded and absorbed the South, after all, that it began to contemplate reform.
Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times.