Pompeo's Vietnam model illogical for N Korea

Pompeo's Vietnam model illogical for N Korea

Economic incentives without guarantees of regime survival not enough to incentivise denuclearisation, writes Sek Sophal

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh arrive for photos before a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi, Vietnam. AP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh arrive for photos before a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi, Vietnam. AP

During an official visit to Vietnam this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited economic development of the country after the US-Vietnam normalisation as a model that may incentivise North Korea to implement a denuclearisation plan. The claims was only met with doubts.

Comparing the case of the US-Vietnam normalisation to that of the US-North Korea relations is a false analogy.

Mr Pompeo met his Vietnamese counterparts on July 9, his first visit to the country as secretary of state. It followed his visit to Japan and North Korea, which was his third trip to the country since the conclusion of a historic summit between the US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore. While Mr Pompeo claimed the meeting was productive, he has given little information related to the progress he claims to have made since the summit. No future plan or tentative schedule for the next activities is available.

In Vietnam, Mr Pompeo publicly encouraged North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic development by highlighting an outstanding case of "Vietnam's economic miracle" after the US and Vietnam reached an agreement to normalise their diplomatic relations in 1995. On the surface, it seems that Mr Pompeo might be right because economic assistance is one of the incentives on the negotiation table. However, if we analyse the problem a bit more critically, we can see that comparing the case of the US-Vietnam normalisation to that of the US-North Korea relations is just like comparing oranges and apples.

First, the US-Vietnam diplomatic normalisation took place as a result of a conclusion of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, Vietnam's only ally, started to collapse in the late 1980s. Vietnam, diplomatically and economically isolated by the international community for decades, found it hard to survive without support from the Soviet Union. Although Vietnam introduced its Doi Moi policy, the political and economic reforms similar to Perestroika of the Soviet Union, in late 1986, it was still too early for the Doi Moi to have much effect.

As Huong Le Thu, a researcher of Vietnam foreign policy at the Australian National University argued, "Vietnam has learnt from historical experience that over-reliance on one partner can be dangerous." Within this context, the need to diversify international relations became one of the most important priorities of Vietnam, which subsequently joined Asean in 1995 and reached the long-awaited diplomatic normalisation with the US the same year.

Second, the US-Vietnam normalisation process took place in its own unique context. The US and Vietnam fought the deadly war during the 1960s and 1970s, but by the end of the Cold War, the ideology competition was over and the winner was clear. Despite the fact that human rights issues were still the challenge of diplomatic relations, by then, the US was no longer a threat to survival of the Vietnamese regime.

Instead, Vietnam saw that normalising diplomatic relations with the US would not only allow Vietnam opportunities to benefit from economic liberalism, but also provide a political and security shield to balance against the growing threats of China in the South China Sea. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) seized the Paracels islands from Vietnam in 1974 and there was a major military clash between the PLA and the Vietnamese military in 1988 just off the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was gone, but China remained a security threat.

The current situation of the US-North Korea relations is far different. To North Korea, the US is still a threat to its regime's survival since the Korean War. Although Kim Jong-un is young, he seems to be a good student of International Relations. Mr Kim is well informed that there are thousands of US troops and dozens of military bases well equipped with massive and modern military hardware in Japan and South Korea. Moreover, Mr Kim learnt not only theories of conventional warfare, but also a theory of "nuclear deterrence", and he is also a good practitioner of "nuclear deterrence" for survival.

According to a report published by the BBC in Jan 2018, Mr Kim explicitly asserted "a nuclear launch button is always on my table and warned the US it will never start a war". As former US Secretary of Defence William James Perry -- one of the key actors taking part in the negotiation process over North Korea's nuclear programme during the Clinton administration -- pointed out during his interview with the Asahi Shimbun on November 29, 2017 that "preserving the Kim dynasty" is the main objective of North Korea.

The regime's survival and international prestige of being in the nuclear club has always been one of the top priorities of North Korea. While economic interests are important, it is highly unlikely that Mr Kim will risk regime survival and international prestige of the nuclear club until and unless the US assures Mr Kim with a "peace treaty" and "arms deduction".

President Trump and Chairman Kim are trying to write a history, but what sort of history the two will write remains to be seen. Some scholars see a deja vu with the failed "Agreed Framework". Negotiations to implement North Korea's denuclearisation have been blowing hot and cold since 1994, but this delay has only worked in North Korea's favour. The negotiations started when North Korea did not have nuclear arsenal or reliable missile capability. It now has both. According to Defence Japan 2017, Japan's defence white paper, North Korea conducted at least 20 missile tests in that year. Militarily, the frequencies of missile tests constitute technological verification to assure accuracy and operational reliability.

Economically enticing North Korea is not wrong, but it is insufficient to move the negotiation forward. Mr Kim has already distanced himself from Mr Pompeo by calling him a "gangster" making unreasonable demands. At the same time, the US approach of negotiating details of the denuclearisation roadmap under continued economic sanctions faces challenges from China, Russia, and South Korea -- all waiting to resume economic ties with the North soon. Mr Pompeo's well-meant praise for Vietnam's economic success, unfortunately, is no lesson for North Korea.

Sek Sophal is a researcher at Democracy Promotion Centre, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Beppu, Japan and a writer for the Bangkok Post.

Sek Sophal

Researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre

Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Beppu, Japan. He is also a contributor to The Bangkok Post


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