This Week in Asia

Flying distance for a dictator, neutral on nukes: why Vietnam's perfect for Trump-Kim summit

The location for the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has become a topic of much speculation by the global media following the White House's announcement that the meeting would take place in late February.

The selection of the venue is highly symbolic diplomatically, and therefore the decision will have strategic implications and reflect geopolitical considerations.

Multiple recent reports have identified Vietnam as front runner. Among its cities seen as most likely to host the summit are: Hanoi, the national capital; Da Nang, site of the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting; and Ho Chi Minh City, the country's commercial hub and once the capital of the US-backed Southern government during the Vietnam war.

Other countries that have emerged as potential candidates include Thailand, Indonesia, Mongolia, Singapore and Hawaii.

Hanoi has made no secret of its interest in hosting the highly anticipated event, with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc vowing last week to "do our best to facilitate the meeting" were his country to be chosen.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump at the first US-North Korea summit, in Singapore. Photo: AFP

As host, Vietnam would satisfy several important criteria. It is near to North Korea and within flying range of Kim's Soviet-era private plane. Equally important is its neutral stance on North Korea's nuclear programme.

Vietnam is also one of the few countries in the world to maintain good relations with both the US and North Korea " respectively, the world's leading free democracy and its most repressive communist regime.

And, being one of the world's few surviving communist nations, Vietnam is a long-time ally of North Korea.

In 1950, four years before Vietnam won its independence from France, North Korea became one of the first nations to recognise the communist regime in Hanoi diplomatically. It also provided material aid and personnel to North Vietnam during its war with the US. More recently, Hanoi helped Pyongyang deal with a famine by supplying it with food, swapping rice for weapons.

Vietnam and the US, meanwhile, did not normalise relations until 1995, two decades after North Vietnam defeated the American-backed South Vietnamese regime to end the Vietnam war. However, their relations have warmed rapidly in recent years. In 2016, the US dropped an arms embargo on Vietnam and one year later a US Navy aircraft carrier visited the country for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war. The former foes also engage in increasing military and security cooperation, apparently in an effort to balance China's rising influence.

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The recent simultaneous visits to Vietnam by Mark Lambert, a senior US State Department official handling North Korea issues, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, suggest Hanoi may be involved in mediating between the US and North Korea.

As one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, Vietnam would also serve as the best example to Pyongyang of how a Stalinist economy can be transformed from poverty and isolation into an economic powerhouse. Vietnam is now an important trade partner with both the US and South Korea " currently North Korea's main foes but also potentially its main trade partners in future. In the past two decades, trade between Vietnam and the US has grown exponentially, from US$451 million in 1995 to US$52 billion in 2016.

Vietnam and South Korea normalised relations in 1992, and Hanoi is now Seoul's fourth-largest trading partner after China, the US and Japan, with two-way trade valued last year at US$62.6 billion.

Selecting Vietnam as the summit venue would also be largely acceptable to China, Japan and South Korea " the other big players regarding affairs on the peninsula.

Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul have long encouraged Pyongyang to embrace economic globalisation. As a close US ally, Japan welcomes Vietnam's increasingly cosy relations with Washington. South Korea, as one of the largest foreign investors in Vietnam, would like to use the country to show the North how it could prosper once it opens up its economy.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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