By Tim Beal
The second Kim-Trump, scheduled to be held in Hanoi scheduled for February 27-28 has attracted voluminous comment, much of it disapproving and most of either ill-informed or deliberately misleading. One way to cut through the nonsense is to focus on the significance of the venue, identifying similarities and differences between the Vietnamese and Korean situations and using that to explore motivations and likely outcomes.
To have this summit between the DPRK and the US (and that’s the order the Vietnamese posters put it in) in the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (and that is the official title of the country) is highly symbolic and profoundly ironical. The Korea War was the first war that the United States did not win, and the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese term it the American War, is the first in which it was defeated. Another irony is that North Korea was an ally in Vietnam’s American War while South Korea, under Park Chung-hee sent 300,000 troops to serve under the US, earning much foreign exchange but committing atrocities which are not forgotten and still reverberate today in both Vietnam and South Korea.
Defeat in Vietnam was traumatic for the Pentagon and the US political establishment. Photos of the hurried evacuation from the US embassy in Saigon (subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City) became an iconic reminder, seen around the world, of the limits of US power and its humbling by what an American journalist recently described as a one of the ‘world’s poorest pariah states.’
Failure in Korea had led to a vow to never fight a land war in Asia again. This vow was forgotten and the US became engaged in an even more disastrous war (from their point of view) in Vietnam. The ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ became an albatross around the Pentagon’s neck and it is said that Ronald Reagan invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to exorcise the syndrome. Grenada’s 600-man army was defeated in two days and the Pentagon celebrated this great victory by awarding ‘more medals per soldier than any military operation in U.S. history. The vow against land wars was repeated but only half remembered, as Afghanistan – now America’s longest war – shows. Indeed the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ is now invoked by neocons as a reason for not withdrawing abruptly from failed wars. Nevertheless this long string of failures is inducing caution especially in respect of East Asia. Back in 2011 then Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated General Douglas McArthur’s observation that anyone sending a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’. Conflict with China is frequently discussed in the US security literature and the one thing they don’t want to contemplate is a land war. A US attack on North Korea, however initiated, would inevitably become a land war because the US would feel compelled to take the whole peninsula, and this would almost certainly lead to Chinese intervention. Since such an attack would bring about the much feared land war with China it is unlikely to happen. However that does not obviate the need for North Korea to have a nuclear deterrent since the US can strike in others ways – using special forces in a decapitation or asset seizure operation or airstrikes. And we know that few things boost an American president’s popularity more than dropping bombs on foreigners who can’t retaliate (ensuring no awkward American casualties).
History offers the solace of amnesia and reinterpretation. Defeats are forgotten, or are converted into victories. Lessons are not learnt. Something like this has happened in the run up to the Hanoi summit. We are told ‘Pompeo urges North Korea’s Kim to follow Vietnam’s example’ and ‘It can be your miracle’: Pompeo urges North Korea to follow Vietnam’s path. We may discount this as the spin expected of Secretaries of State regurgitated by lazy journalists, and it is that. But it is also a favourite with ‘experts’ and academics. Michael O’Hanlon, for instance asserted that:
‘That former U.S. enemy [Vietnam} has restructured its economy and begun to open its society and politics while retaining communism as official dogma. The process started in the 1980s and accelerated thereafter, culminating in normalization of ties in the Clinton era.’
O’Hanlon, it might be remembered, claimed back in 2002 that the invasion of Afghanistan‘…will likely be remembered as one of the greater military successes of the twenty-first century’. The same line is taken by Professor Stephen Nagy who pontificates that:
The choice of Vietnam for the second Kim-Trump summit has been intentional to send Pyongyang the strongest of messages that former bitter enemies can transform their relationship to one of cooperation, reconciliation and friendship. Simultaneously, Washington’s willingness to work with Vietnam’s communist government signals to Pyongyang that through a commitment to denuclearize and normalization of relations with Washington North Korea can also retain its regime.
The argument, comforting though it might be to conservative Americans is quite ahistorical and misleading. What really happened is that in 1975 the Vietnamese Communists swept away the collaborationist regime that America had inherited from the French, expelled US forces and reunified the whole country under their control. As veteran mainstream American journalist Donald Kirk wrote criticising Pompeo’s ‘Vietnam model’ trope:
Vietnam emerged as a united country after communist forces from “North” Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed “South” Vietnam regime in April 1975. Was he suggesting that maybe North Korea could emerge as a great country if the North Koreans overran South Korea and united Korea under Kim dynasty rule?
Kirk’s sarcasm hit on a crucial point – the reunification of Vietnam. This left the US with no rump regime to pin hopes on, and since a renewed military intervention was politically unthinkable there was pressure to come to terms with Socialist Vietnam and accept peaceful coexistence however grudgingly. The Sino-Vietnam war of 1979 clinched the argument. An independent Vietnam was regrettable but one at loggerheads with China could possibly be used as an ally/pawn. Vietnam, having no fear of an American attack had no need to develop a nuclear deterrent. This established the foundation for the process of ‘reconciliation’, the major milestone of which was Bill Clinton’s lifting of trade sanctions in 1994. Vietnam was able to embark on export-led growth and became the world’s second largest rice exporter.
It is clear from this brief sketch that the experiences of Vietnam and Korea, despite similarities are profoundly different. The key to understanding these differences is to examine US strategic policy and its options. The US came to terms with Vietnam for one set of reasons, it came to terms with China for another set. It has yet to come to terms with Korea and that is what the negotiations are about.
With Vietnam, and China, there was no possibility of a restoration of American control but on the Korean peninsula things are very different. South Korea has twice the population of the North and is considerably richer. The dream of reunification with the South absorbing the North (the opposite of what happened in Vietnam) still enthuses many in Seoul and in Washington. Moreover South Korea has a formidable military and, with Japan, forms the nexus of US power in East Asia and is seen as crucial to the containment of China. The US camp at Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, is America’s largest overseas base and the one closest to Beijing.
The geopolitical fundamentals are clear and documented elsewhere and can be lightly sketched here. North Korea poses no direct military threat to the US – it cannot attack without committing suicide, it cannot defend but only deter. However the example of this deterrence, if it succeeds in preventing a US attack or, hopefully forcing the US to accept peaceful coexistence does present a challenge to US global hegemony. The main concern of the US is China (and to a lesser extent Russia) and the political/military establishment, from Congress to the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community, has no desire to accept peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Tension on the Korean peninsula is an essential component of its China strategy and its forward military presence in Asia.
Trump hankers after a ‘diplomatic victory’ to divert attention from problems at home, to embellish his administration in the history books and collect a Nobel Peace Prize. The establishment has being doing its best to derail his negotiations with Kim Jong Un, worked at pushing back after the Singapore Summit and if some progress towards peace comes out of Hanoi, will attempt to sabotage it.
There will probably be a summit statement agreed in Hanoi, as there was in Singapore. It will be a document that saves face for both sides, and is subject to different interpretations. If the Singapore summit is any guide US interpretations will be grossly at variance with the actual text. There is little likelihood that it will produce a breakthrough in the US-DPRK relationship because the establishment is set against that, for quite sensible realpolitik reasons. The present situation serves them well.
However, we can expect there will be pressure for a deepening of the détente process on the Korean peninsula and improvements in North Korea’s relations with China, Russia, and Vietnam. In that sense peace is in the air.
As Kim Jong Un travels to Vietnam the Washington Post tells us that ‘The U.S. wants North Korea to follow the ‘miracle’ of Vietnam’s path’. By that they mean that North Korea should surrender and submit to unilateral disarmament. But in reality the Vietnam lesson is quite different. It was not surrender but Vietnam’s total victory which forced the United States into peace, and opened the way for the ‘miracle’. Korea’s situation is different, and more difficult. But the essential message is the same. Surrender is not a good option. The goal must be that of Vietnam, to become a unified, independent country, not subservient to the US or anyone else.
Tim Beal is a New Zealand-based scholar whose area of expertise is the geopolitics of Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power (2005) and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War (2011) and an occasional columnist for the Washington-based website NK News.
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