Kim’s top aides on economic tour as North Korea looks to Vietnam model

February 27, 2019

By Hyonhee Shin

HANOI (Reuters) – North Korean officials visited some high-tech factories and a tourist site in Vietnam on Wednesday, as their leader, Kim Jong Un, looks to shore up his sanctions-hit economy by copying the successes of another old U.S. foe.

President Donald Trump noted how Vietnam was thriving soon after he arrived late on Tuesday for his second summit with Kim, in Hanoi, a city the United States bombed during the Vietnam War.

As Trump tries to cajole Kim into taking steps towards full and verified denuclearization of North Korea, he has been highlighting its economic potential and the example Vietnam offers.

When Kim visited Singapore in June, for his first summit with Trump, he was impressed with its development and said he was eager to learn from its experiences.

Now he’s keen to learn from Vietnam.

A group of Kim’s foreign policy and economic aides, who accompanied him to Vietnam, traveled out of Hanoi on Wednesday to the industrial port town of Haiphong and the nearby UNESCO-listed Ha Long Bay.

Kim, scheduled to begin talks with Trump in the evening, did not join the trip.

In Haiphong, the delegation toured the automaker Vinfast, smartphone firm VinSmart and VinEco, an agriculture and food supplier, all of the which are units of Vietnam’s largest conglomerate, Vingroup.

But the trip was not all work. Some members of the delegation snapped selfies on a boat ride on Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam’s top tourist sites, South Korean broadcaster KBS reported.

Communist-ruled Vietnam has boomed since it launched reforms known as “doi moi” in the late 1980s.

“Vietnam’s ‘doi moi’ is an ideal model for North Korea, which wants to retain the one-party system while pursuing bold economic reforms to engineer growth,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a specialist in the North Korean economy at IBK Bank in Seoul.

Cho said Vietnam’s size, population, the state of its agriculture and its need for foreign capital made it a better model for North Korea to copy than China.

The North Korean team was led by Ri Su Yong, a former vice foreign minister and now vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party, and included for the first time top economic policymaker O Su Yong.

The inclusion of O, a former minister of electronics and vice minister of metals and machine building, in the delegation signals Kim’s hope to take a page from Vietnam’s book.

‘BETTER FIT’

Kim shifted his focus to the economy at a party congress last April, abandoning the parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development he had expounded since taking power in 2011.

While Vietnam’s model of reform is widely touted as the economic path for North Korea, Vietnam’s transformation has required political change and levels of individual freedoms that would require major reforms for the Kim family, which is afforded godlike status by state propaganda.

The delegation’s choice of the three factories and the tourist hot spot reflected Kim’s calls for “cutting-edge technologies” and a self-reliant economy.

Vinfast is Vietnam’s first fully fledged carmaker, while VinSmart rolled out its first locally made smartphone, Vsmart, last year.

Despite Vietnam’s new focus on high-tech industry, agriculture remains a major source of exports and driver of growth. VinEco promotes sustainable farming.

Ha Long Bay, dotted with steep-sided islands, attracted more than 12 million tourists last year, numbers Kim can only dream of.

North Korea is building tourist complexes in the east coast city of Wonsan and in the alpine town of Samjiyon near its famous Mount Paektu.

Kim’s late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, visited Ha Long Bay in 1964. On Wednesday, Vietnamese officials gave the visiting delegation pictures from that trip as a gift for Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper hailed Vietnam’s “big potential” and efforts to “diversify industrial structure” from the agriculture-dependent economy.

Yang Un-chul of the Sejong Institute in South Korea said if the North is ever going to fulfil its ambition to be an advanced socialist economy, it has to learn from business like the ones the delegation visited in Vietnam.

“North Korea would want to make better use of its good labor and nurture more sophisticated industries, and those sites have something to offer,” Yang said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee, Jeongmin Kim and Wonil Lee in SEOUL; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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