[Outlook]Learning VietnameseChristopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said North Korea’s recent overtures to Vietnam are both very interesting and positive.
They suggest the country feels the need to open its doors, Hill added.
It’s easy to see why Hill made such remarks when you review North Korea’s recent moves.
Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, rates Vietnam’s “Doi Moi” reform policy very highly. When Nong Duc Manh, the secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, invited the North Korean leader to Vietnam, Kim said he would willingly accept because he wanted to learn from that country.
Since 1986, when Vietnam adopted the Doi Moi reform process, the country has rapidly adopted the market economy, expanding trade and liberalizing its financial market.
Vietnam’s economy is growing at nearly 8 percent a year.
Kim’s words proceeded into action. Late last month, North Korea’s delegation, including Prime Minister Kim Yong-il, visited Vietnam to learn strategies to adopt the market economy.
They visited the department for planning and investment, which is implementing the economic reforms, and asked many questions. They showed a keen interest in ways to attract foreign capital and to foster tourism.
Kim Jong-il plans to visit Vietnam in the near future.
Despite the war between Vietnam and the United States, and the ensuing social, political and economic problems, Vietnam has achieved rapid economic growth and its economy is similar in size to North Korea’s.
That makes Vietnam the perfect textbook for North Korea, which has put up with hunger and has built its regime upon anti-American slogans.
No wonder Hill senses change in North Korea. On the state-run Central TV, the North swears to cooperate with the United States in its war against terrorism.
And there’s a rumor circulating that the United States will take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But if we think more about it, all this seems rather familiar. In January 2001, Kim Jong-il visited Shanghai and said the city had undergone a marvelous, unbelievable transformation. Kim said his trip to Shanghai mirrored the one Deng Xiaoping made to South China where he delivered a series of speeches. Kim then admitted regret about the way North Korea is run, and he swore that he would replace government officials with younger figures when he got home.
Five years later, in 2006, Kim visited China again. He met with Hu Jintao, the secretary general of the Communist Party of China, and recalled his visit to Shanghai. But this time he was even more impressed when looking around the special economic zone. He complimented China, saying that the rapid development and energy of southern China had left a deep impression.
But what was the result? It turned out North Korea possessed nuclear weapons and it announced that it would carry out a nuclear test.
Although Kim said he was deeply impressed to see China, he hasn’t instigated many changes. He agreed to build the Kaesong Industrial Park as if he was doing South Korea a favor.
It does not matter how many times Kim praises China. What’s important is that he realizes the fundamental reasons for the changes he witnessed in China.
Even if North Korea’s prime minister identifies those reasons, he will not be able to explain them to North Korea’s leaders. He will not be able to recommend implementing reforms or an open-door policy. Kim Jong-il argues that the Kaesong Industrial Park doesn’t mean North Korea is opening up its country.
It is understandable that Kim Jong-il responds in such a sensitive way. The former Soviet Union carried out perestroika and as a result Mikhail Gorbachev had to step down. In China and Vietnam, the Communist Party still holds power, but individuals cannot wield power like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Ho Chi Min.
Opening up the North Korean economy inevitably involves political change. The market will wither if people reject the new social standings that the market economy will create.
If North Korea wants to take similar steps, it must relinquish the personality cult and make Kim Il Sung a figure restricted to the history books.
However, socialism in North Korea has a different gene structure from that seen in the other socialist countries. Absolute loyalty to the leader is the key in the juche ideology.
The father hands the reins of power to his son; North Korea residents weep in the rain at the sight of banners proclaiming the leader’s words. “Heroes” who rescued the leader’s portrait from fire are rewarded with prizes.
It was under this influence in the 1980s, when the juche ideology was popular among some South Korean universities, that South Korean student activists were moved to tears by their student leaders.
It was Ye Jianying who convinced Deng Xiaoping not to retain power for three terms. Deng remained the country’s leader, but he didn’t pass the baton of leadership to his offspring.
But there is no Ye Jianying in North Korea. People do not invest in a state where the dictator’s emotions oppress rationality.
Will North Korea successfully learn a lesson from Vietnam, even though it failed to do so from China, without changing its genes?
*The writer is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.