North Korea tested the world’s patience with its latest missile test, which flied over Japan. The missile, thought to be a Hwasong-12, was launched just four days after the United Nations had unanimously agreed on new sanctions against Pyongyang.
While China has been considered as a main factor in solving the North Korea problem, the United States has also sought other avenues of resolving tensions.
While Switzerland is said to be involved in the ongoing imbroglio, Vietnam has also been considered as a mediator in the US–North Korea conflict. This is because Hanoi is also one of the most trusted friends of Pyongyang, and both communist countries are seeking ways to exit China’s orbit.
North Korea fears of isolation
Dragged into tensions with the US, North Korea is increasingly isolated by Washington’s allies. Besides bigger names, examples even smaller countries lining up — Kuwait ordered the North Korean ambassador to leave, as well as Peru teamed up with the Philippines and Mexico to take diplomatic measures against North Korea. Lima declared the North Korean ambassador Kim Hak Chol persona non grata and order him to leave within five days. The Philippines suspended trade relations with North Korea over Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and Mexico gave the North Korean ambassador Kim Hyong Gil 72 hours to leave the country, citing its “absolute rejection” of North Korea’s nuclear activity.
Together with diplomatic pressure, North Korea’s economy prospects are bleak, after the latest sanctions by the United States, coupled with those of the United Nations.
China, the closest ally of North Korea, has meanwhile made clear its stance: Beijing does not want to be blamed for issue of a regime that it is said to be no longer in control. Just as US President Donald Trump signed an executive order for tighter sanctions, China announced that its banks would halt doing business with North Korea.
China wants to re-establish the six-party talks regarding the Korean peninsula issue. This was reflected by the recent BRICS joint statement of association of five major emerging national economies, which stated: “We express deep concern over the ongoing tension and prolonged nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula and emphasize that it should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue of all the parties concerned.”
Yet this scenario is not what the US seeks. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in March said: “We don’t want to get back into the six-party talks.” President Donald Trump, a day after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over Japan, declared “talking is not the answer.”
North Korea doesn’t want this either, unless you can imagine reasons why Pyongyang pulled out of the six-party talks in 2009, risked hurting its economy and diplomacy for eight years, and then suddenly returned back to the talks.
Kim Jong Un seems to go too far. The more North Korea is isolated, the more Pyongyang depends on China – and given that China has long said that it “has a plan for a North Korea collapse,” Pyongyang must seek alternatives.
Directly talking to the US is not a bad choice, and in this regard Vietnam can be considered as a mediator.
Vietnam has motivation
In 2016, Vietnam condemned North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear test. It was usual, and widely seen as a move to strengthen the relationship with Barack Obama’s administration. The former US president at the time was taking efforts to lift the Vietnam weapons embargo.
But the condemnation also reflected the flexibility of Vietnam’s policy. Professor Vu Duong Ninh, former dean of international studies at Vietnam National University, said that Vietnam’s foreign policy is to make the most of all resources, and to avoid being dependent on anyone. Therefore, Vietnam keeps in touch with the US, while at the same time it approaches North Korea at a moderate level.
Both Vietnam and North Korea are communist countries and they have both had wars with the US. At one time, North Korea even looked to Vietnam as an economic reform model, according to the Brookings Institution.
North Korea under leader Kim Jong Un, pursuing the “Byungjin” policy (pursuing parallel goals of national defense and economy), also is making efforts to diversify its economy.
In fact, international observers argue that Vietnam is keeping North Korea at a certain distance because it does not want to risk economic relations with Japan and South Korea. But in the context of all parties’ concerns about a military conflict, or at least, an arms race in the peninsula, a reconciliation is in the interests of all.
Vietnam once proved its worth. In the past Vietnam served as neutral ground for talks between Japan and North Korea on the issue of family reunions and kidnapped Japanese.
“If Vietnam cannot play the role of mediator that does not prevent it from providing a venue for secret talks,” said Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales and a leading expert about South China Sea, China and Vietnam.
Although at the present time the conditions do not seem ripe for talks between Pyongyang and Washington, the participation of Vietnam in North Korea–US relations at any level could allow Hanoi to bring satisfaction to all parties, and benefit itself as well.
Almost at the same time that North Korea is facing condemnation, Vietnam has had to deal with pressure from China’s unexpected live-fire drills in the Paracel islands from the end of August to earlier September.
This year has been hard for Vietnam, too. Despite the strong words against China’s claims over the South China Sea at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines last month, the Philippines – the rotating chairman of ASEAN, seems to be silent about the South China Sea. Vietnam has also been dragged into diplomatic spats with Germany, as Berlin accused Hanoi of kidnapping Trinh Xuan Thanh, a businessman who lived in Berlin.
That is to say, the North Korea crisis inadvertently opens an opportunity for Vietnam to contribute its role, strengthening its position in the international arena, helping Hanoi regain its prestige as well as gain other potential diplomatic, military and South China Sea issue benefits.
“In order for Vietnam to play the role of mediator in the current crisis on the Korean peninsula four things are necessary. First, Vietnam must be willing to give this matter high priority and be willing to invest diplomatic time and effort. Second, North Korea must be willing to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis and trust Vietnam. Third, the United State must also trust Vietnam and be willing to meet with North Korea. Fourth, South Korea must approve of Vietnam as a mediator,” Thayer added.
It appears that Vietnam being considered by President Trump, who called Vietnamese and other ASEAN leaders in April to discuss North Korea. Now, he can think about such solutions in his upcoming visit to Vietnam for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam in November.
*Du Nhat Dang is a Vietnamese reporter who works for Tuoi Tre newspaper, Vietnam. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism and Communication, University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. He is a fellow at the ASEAN Foundation’s Reporting ASEAN program, which supports articles about ASEAN. His articles are also published on the Diplomat Magazine.