Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing

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ABN # 65 648 097 123
US-Vietnam Cooperation on the
North Korean Issue
Carlyle A. Thayer
June 9, 2017

[client name deleted]
We are preparing a report about the cooperation between Vietnam and the US to deal
with the North Korean issue following the visit to Washington by Vietnam’s Prime
Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Would like to have your assessment regarding this.
Could you please address the following issues:
Q1- Trump and Phuc expressed their concerns for North Korea's nuclear and ballistic
missile tests during their meeting in Washington last week. Does Trump need
Vietnam's support for pressuring Pyongyang to curb its nuclear programs? If yes, why?
ANSWER: Here is the context for Trump’s request: in May, Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson hosted a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Washington. At this meeting
Tillerson called on ASEAN to enforce “leak proof” UN sanctions on North Korea. He
also called on ASEAN ministers to minimize (suspend or downgrade) their diplomatic
relations with North Korea in cases where North Korean embassies were over-staffed.
This implied that North Korean diplomats were engaging in illegal fund-raising
activities. Tillerson also called for ASEAN states to cut revenue streams and
commercial activities by North Korean companies, and visa extensions for North
Korean workers, in reference to the Philippines and Malaysia.
All ASEAN countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea but only five have
embassies in Pyongyang. The US is considering so-called “secondary sanctions”, that
is, taking action against foreign companies in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) that do
business with North Korean companies.
When President Trump met Prime Minister Phuc they jointly expressed their concern
over North Korea’s ballistic and missile tests. The also jointly agreed to support
denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and strictly implement UN Sanctions.
President Trump seeks the support of ASEAN and all its members in dealing with the
North Korean issue. Trump invited the leaders of Singapore, Thailand and the
Philippines to The White House. Trump specifically called Philippine President Duterte
(April) and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (May) to ask for their support on
North Korea.
This is the context of Trump’s approach to Prime Minister Phuc. First, Trump would
like Hanoi to review its relations with North Korea and to take appropriate action if
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necessary in the areas of US concern: oversized embassy, activities by North Korean
companies and workers, and revenue streams generated by the sale of arms or drugs.
Second, Trump would like Vietnam to use its relations with North Korea to exert
diplomatic and political pressure to halt nuclear testing and the development of
ballistic missiles. Third, Trump would like Vietnam use its influence in ASEAN to create
a stronger united diplomatic front against North Korea. On March 23, North Korea
wrote a letter to ASEAN’s Secretary General asking for assistance in opposing US
encirclement when ASEAN held its Summit in the Philippines. In May, ASEAN
ministers, however, issued a statement expressing their “grave concern” over North
Korea’s nuclear testing and called on North Korea to abide by UN Security Council
sanctions. The US would like to see stronger ASEAN action on enforcing UN sanctions.
Fourth, and this is speculation, there have been reports that ASEAN might play a third
party role in getting the US and North Korea to meet. In this case ASEAN would get
North Korea to attend a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum and have sideline
discussion with the United States..
Q2- How would Vietnam be able to help in these issues since and in what way that
wouldn't hurt the relationship between Vietnam and North Korea? What role Vietnam
could play in this game?
ANSWER: As a member of the international community, it should be noted, Vietnam
supports UN sanctions against North Korea.
Both North Korea and Vietnam jealously guard their sovereignty. Any diplomatic
action by Vietnam would risk harming their bilateral relations; and undermining
Vietnam’s professed policy of being “a good friend and reliable partner” to all
countries Vietnam would also have to be careful not to upset China.
Since China would like to see North Korea and the United States meet to discuss their
differences, there is also, at the same time, an opportunity for Vietnam. Hanoi might
try to host private talks between Pyongyang and Washington similar to the North
Korea-Japan reconciliation talks over a half decade ago.
Vietnam is not essential for Trump’s strategy of applying more pressure on North
Korea. Vietnam, however, stands to gain by diplomatically supporting the US strategy
as a member of ASEAN.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “US-Vietnam Cooperation on the North Korean
Issue,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, June 9, 2017. All background briefs are
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.