Vietnam seemed like the perfect place for Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to meet in late February for their latest summit on denuclearization. At Hanoi’s posh Metropole Hotel, Trump hoped to convince Kim to abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting U.S. sanctions against North Korea, which would spur needed economic development in that country.
North Korea’s economy has been in dire straits since the Soviet Union – which had propped up its communist regime – collapsed in the early 1990s. Starvation remains common in North Korea, where 10.5 of its 25 million people are undernourished.
Meanwhile, Vietnam – once one of the world’s poorest countries – has prospered. Its communist government introduced free-market reforms in the late 1980s after the failure of its Soviet-style planned economy, permitting the private ownership of businesses and farms after years of controlling all markets.
Referencing Vietnam’s economic success story, President Trump wrote on Twitter on February 8: “With complete Denuclearization, North Korea will rapidly become an Economic Powerhouse” too.
The communist divide
As a historian, I disagree with Trump’s view that Vietnam is the blueprint for North Korea.
I am currently writing a college textbook on the history of Germany, my country of birth. The Vietnam summit came while I was focused on the chapter about East Germany’s transition, in the 1990s, from a Soviet-style socialist economy to a more free-market economy.