Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Vietnam in the Peace Process on the Korean Peninsula


Pham Hong Thai1


Abstract: In recent years, Vietnam has been favorably recognized by the public as a country experienced in reconciliation and peace. In the process of implementing denuclearization and building a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam is also seen to have great potential to act as a mediator. The paper focuses on analyzing the advantageous factors that enable Vietnam to actively contribute to promoting the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. This is reflected in the fact that Vietnam is not only a sincere partner who always plays an active role, but also a country having favorable conditions to act as a mediator among the parties involved in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, and a valued development model that North Korea may refer to in the course of reform and international integration.

Keywords: Vietnam, Korean Peninsula, New Southern Policy


In recent years, the world has witnessed a Korean Peninsula with very complicated political and security developments. There have been times when the relationship between the United States and North Korea worsened, leading to increasing tension in the relationship between South Korea and North Korea that even appeared to stand on the verge of war. However, the Inter-Korean Summit and the US-North Korea Summit in 2018 and early 2019 seem to have opened up a new direction for the relationship between South Korea and the US with North Korea. Although at present, the negotiation process among the parties is facing certain deadlocks, even not excluding the possibility of returning to the starting point, with the endeavours of the stakeholders and the international peace-loving community, it still has reasons to hope for a prospect of denuclearization and creation of a sustainable peace for the Korean Peninsula. In this paper, we would like to discuss the favorable factors that enable Vietnam to actively contribute to the promotion of the reconciliation process towards a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula in the context that the Inter-Korean relations and the US- North Korea relations keep improving.

1. Vietnam sincerely wishes to play an active role in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula is now one of the few places in the world that still carries strong political and security impressions from the Cold War. The end of World War II in 1945 marked the end of Japanese imperial rule on the Korean Peninsula. However, later due to the intervention of great powers, the Korean Peninsula from a unified country was divided into two regions with the arrival of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the North and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in the South.

After the war ended, North Korea constructed the country according to the socialist model. During the first 10 years, the North Korean economy achieved an average growth of 25% per year, which could be counted as the world’s highest growth rate during that period, once praised as "the miracle of the Far East". In the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea's economy surpassed that of South Korea. North Korea was considered on par with Japan to be the two Asian industrial countries at that time.2 However, since the 1990s, after the bloc of socialist countries in Eastern Europe disintegrated, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s economy stepped into a difficult situation and a recession. As the United States and other countries adopted trade embargoes due to its nuclear weapons program, The North Korea economy became increasingly stagnant and such situation continues to this day.

Similar to what happened on the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam has previously been affected and severely suffered the consequences of the Cold War with the dominant strategic interests of regional and world powers. The country of Vietnam was also once divided into two parts of the North and the South with a conflict lasting for more than twenty years, leaving extremely heavy losses of wealth and lives. Therefore, Vietnamese people truly understand and sympathize with the traumatic and divided feelings that the people of the two Koreas have been experiencing and wish to share with the people of the two Korean countries on the Korean Peninsula about the lessons learned in the process of building and fighting for peace and unification of the country.

In 1975, after the resistance completed successfully, Vietnam became a unified country and entered a stable period to build a new society. Today, Vietnam is a country in the process of renovation, gradually developing a socialist-oriented market economy. Vietnam really needs a peaceful and stable regional and international environment for cooperation and mutual development. A peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula is not only the aspiration of the people of the two countries on the Korean Peninsula but also the desires of the Vietnamese people. Therefore, Vietnam truly wishes to play an active role in resolving arisen issues to maintain sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula.

2. Vietnam is a country with favorable conditions in the role of mediator, actively contributing to disarming and creating sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, particularly, denuclearization of North Korea is one of the indispensably important conditions to build and ensure sustainable peace on the Peninsula. However, the practice of the six-party talks on this issue from 2003 to 2009 as well as the recent Inter-Korean Summit, US-Korean Summit, shows that this is not a straightforward problem because it involves North Korea's strategic security interests as well as those of the nations involved.

For North Korea, the nuclear weapons program in the past of more than 50 years3 is aimed at creating a means to protect the country. Nuclear weapons to North Korea are considered a "treasured sword", which is a strong foundation to ensure the security for the current political institution in the context that the two Korean countries are still confronting conflicts and outside threats, first of all those from the United States. However, the development of nuclear weapons also causes certain consequences for North Korea itself. Such weapons are considered as a threatening factor, destabilizing the international and regional security, causing latent doubts and risks of conflicts among regional countries, stimulating them to enter arms races and finding the ways to own nuclear weapons. As a result, North Korea has suffered sanctions by the United States and international countries for many years, therefore, North Korea's economy has been in decline and the North Koreans have been struggling with more difficulties. Through the recent Inter-Korean talks and US-North Korea Summits, North Korea has expressed the willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula once her security is guaranteed. However, this is still very difficult because lessons learned from the fall of the Gaddafi government and chaos that have not seen an end in Libya since 2011 after the country pledged to give up nuclear weapons in 2003, are still intact valuable references. Building trust between the two Koreas, between North Korea and the United States is utmost important, however, it is still far ahead.

What is of interest here is that the current trust building for the nuclear weapons disarmament process of North Korea depends not only on the specific actions of the countries involved, but also the impacts of intermediaries in order to enhance interaction and mutual understanding. In this regard, Vietnam may play an active role of mediator. Currently, Vietnam has friendly relationships with both North Korea and South Korea, and a growing relationship with the United States.

For North Korea, the Vietnam-North Korea relationship is a traditional friendship. North Korea was one of the first three countries to recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1950 (after China and the Soviet Union)4. In 1950s and 1960s, North Korea and Vietnam maintained the close relations as sharing many similarities. Both countries at this time were divided, both were fighting against the US and receiving support from socialist powers like China and the Soviet Union. Such relationship was further strengthened when North Korea sent nearly 100 pilots and young military officers to Vietnam to study, train and directly join the fight with Vietnamese pilots. There were 14 Korean pilots heroically sacrificed their life on the battlefield B of Vietnam. North Korea also helped Vietnam to train hundreds of students, as well as aid Vietnam with materials, medicine, etc. After Vietnam reunified in 1975 and started carrying out "Đổi mới" in 1986, the development paths of Vietnam and North Korea gradually see differences. While Vietnam has been conducting renovation and construction of a socialist-oriented market economy, North Korea has been maintaining the closed and isolated regime, therefore, falling into a very difficult situation. In spite of that the relations between the two countries continue  to be maintained, Vietnam has repeatedly provided food aid to North Korea with thousands of tons of rice, and other necessities during her difficult times5.

For South Korea, the Vietnam-South Korea relationship, though the two countries have only established the official relations since 1992, has been growing unprecedentedly. Over nearly 30 years, the two countries have twice upgraded their relations from "comprehensive partnership in the 21st century" (in 2002) to "strategic cooperation partnership" (in 2009). Recently, Vietnam–South Korea relationship has made great progress in many fields such as politics, investment, trade and tourism. Vietnam considers South Korea to be the leading partner in many fields, while South Korea also places Vietnam as a key partner in the New Southern Policy of President Moon Jea-in. The frequent exchanges of delegations at all levels, especially visits of high-ranking leaders, have shown the increasing political trust between the two sides. Currently, South Korea is one of the top investors, the second largest trading partner and one of the leading ODA donors of Vietnam. The friendship and exchanges between the governments and people of the two countries have developed and been deepened in almost all fields6.

For the United States, the Vietnam-US relations has grown rapidly over the past 25 years, from former war foes, the two countries have turned to normalizing and developing the relations to a new level with the framework of "comprehensive partnership". Since the two countries normalized relations and officially established diplomatic relations in 1995, Vietnam-US relations have successfully transformed from confrontation to friends, and become comprehensive partners in politics - diplomacy, economics, education, science and technology, as well as national defense and security; with the increasingly stronger   cooperation motivation, the fields of cooperation are increasingly broad, deep, diverse, intrinsic, effective and harmonious of interests with strategic importance.

Along with the remarkable political relations, Vietnam-US economic and trade cooperation is considered the most successful field of cooperation, that has been becoming the focus, foundation and development motivation for the common relationship between the two countries. Currently, the United States is one of Vietnam's largest trading partners. Over the past 24 years, the bilateral trade turnover has increased by more than 100 times, from 451 million USD (in 1995) to 60.3 billion USD (in 2018), by the end of November 2019 that figure has reached  68.6 billion USD7. The America Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam (AmCham) has forecast that the trade turnover between the two countries may reach 80 billion USD by 2020. Regarding investment, the United States currently ranks 11th out of 130 countries and territories having direct investment in Vietnam with 908 projects and total registered capital of 9 billion USD.

In other cooperative fields such as security - national defense, science - technology, education and environment, the Vietnam-US relations has also achieved various outstanding achievements.

It may be seen that the Vietnam-US Comprehensive Partnership, which has been strengthened and promoted, is on the way of developing on the basis of mutual benefits, equality, respects for independence, sovereignty and political institutions of each other.

Not only that, Vietnam has strategic partnerships with most partners that have important implications for security, especially the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula such as China, Russia and Japan and been trusted by these countries to be a mediator to reconcile North Korea’s issues.

In the second US-North Korea Summit held in Hanoi in 28-29 February 2019, although the US and North Korea did not reach the desired agreement, Vietnam clearly proved her positive, reliable and potential contributions in the role of a mediator.

3. Vietnam being a development model that North Korea may refer to in the course of economic reform and international integration

To overcome the current stagnant economy, North Korea needs to gradually undertake comprehensive national reforms and in fact, North Korea is searching for an economic reform path in the condition of sanctions. The successful "innovation" and development model of Vietnam in recent years will be a useful example for North Korea to consult, draw lessons learned, then formulate appropriate policies for the economic development and international integration.

Vietnam and North Korea share many historical and cultural similarities, especially in geopolitics. In the historical traditions, both Vietnam and North Korea were deeply influenced by Chinese cultural traditions, and Western socialist ideology. After World War II, North Korea was one divided region from the unified country on the Korean Peninsula like Vietnam was divided from 1954 until 1975.

In 1975, Vietnam overcame internal and external obstacles to successfully conduct the national reunification, after that the country was also imposed a trade embargo by the United States, which lasted until 1994. During that period, Vietnam was falling into a state of economic stagnation almost like North Korea’s current situation.

From 1986, when Eastern European socialist countries and the Soviet Union were in crisis and faced the risk of collapse, Vietnam sought to break the isolation and started doing economic reforms by "Đổi mới" policies with the target of developing a socialist-oriented market economy. After 30 years of carrying out “Đổi mới”, Vietnam has gained important achievements in industrializing and modernizing the country.

In economic term, Vietnam’s policies of open-door and international integration in the past three decades have brought about remarkable triumphs contributing to empowering and enhancing the country's strength. The economy which used to be backward and stagnant has now become more dynamic and developed rapidly (currently the economy is among the countries having the fastest growth rate in the region and in the world), the people’s living standard from the status of not having enough to eat to having improved significantly and then become a middle- income country. From 2002 to 2018, more than 45 million Vietnamese people successfully escaped from poverty, therefore, the poverty rate dropped sharply from over 70% to less than 6% (US$3.2/ day on PPP). GDP per capita has increased by 2.5 times, reaching over US$2,500 in 20188.

In political term, from the position of having a weak voice in the international arena, Vietnam now has become a country of significant importance in the region and in the world. In 2020, Vietnam holds the rotating ASEAN Chair and Non-Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council for the period of 2020-2021. Vietnam has been an independent nation with national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and gained a growing position in the international and regional arena.

In diplomatic term, Vietnam moved from being isolated in the international arena in the 1980s, to breaking the isolation, then building the comprehensive national power by implementing multilateral diplomacy, making friends with all other countries. In particular, in the case of US-Vietnam relations, there has been a leap forward, moving from hostile relations to comprehensive partners. The US has been becoming an important partner of Vietnam in investment, trade and security.

In cultural term, Vietnam has gained outstanding cultural achievements on the basis of absorbing the advanced outcomes of human culture to form a diverse culture imbued with national identity, and become an attractive destination for tourism.

With these successes, Vietnam may be the closest model for North Korea to consult and study to find out the appropriate route for herself. By enhancing exchanges and cooperative activities with North Korea, Vietnam could play an active role in North Korea’s course of renovation and international integration.

4. Prospects for Vietnam contributing actively in the peace process on the Korean peninsula

After more than 30 years of conducting “Đổi mới”, today Vietnam's position in the regional and international arena has significantly increased as mentioned above. With such political status, Vietnam is able to better play its role in addressing issues related to the process of nuclear disarmament and peace-security maintainance on the Korean Peninsula.

In particular, the current administration of President Moon Jea-in is actively implementing the New Southern Policy (2007), in which the Vietnam-South Korea relationship is viewed as a pillar. With the New Southern Policy, South Korea will join 10 ASEAN countries and India – those are in the South of her territory, to cooperate for the construction of a 3P Community - a "future community" centered around People, Peace and Prosperity. South Korea's New Southern Policy is aimed toward multilateral diplomacy, aligning Southern countries with the Northeast Asian peaceful region to build a Responsible Northeast Asia Plus Community. ASEAN and India will become a "new axis of prosperity" in the New Southern Policy of the South Korean Government. In particular, on the foundation of commodity trade and exploration of new markets, activities in technical cooperation, arts and culture as well as people exchanges shall be focused. By continuing to deepen the strategic partnership between Vietnam and South Korea, Vietnam will become one of the most important economic partners of South Korea and a bridge between South Korea and Southeast Asia. Vietnam not only fulfills its role of strengthening South Korea- ASEAN relations, but also may encourages other ASEAN countries to increase communication, gradually establish cooperative relations with North Korea in order to contribute to reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.


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Although some progress has been realized, the process of ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula still has lots of difficulties and unpredictable challenges ahead. The fate and future of the Korean Peninsula must be decided by the people of the two Koreas. However, the positive contribution of other countries to this process is also significantly meaningful, especially when the Inter-Korea relations and the US-North Korea relations continue being maintained and having positive improvements. In such context, Vietnam will undoubtedly be one of the factors adding positive momentum contributing to promoting the sustainable peace process towards the unification of the Korean Peninsula in the future.



1 Assoc. Prof., Ph.D., Institute for Northeast Asian Studies, VASS

2 Huy Long, “North Korea: From golden age to tribulation”, Tien phong, 23 Apr 2013, kim-denkho-nan-624039.tpo.

3 As counted from the time the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center started operating in 1965.

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5 Phuong Vu, “Vietnam and North Korea relations – a relationship being molded from the fire of wars”, VNExpress 20 Feb 2019.

6 Anh Huyen, “Vietnam – South Korea relations and miraculous developments”, VOV5, 25 Nov 2019.

7 Vietnambiz, “2019 - a vibrant year of Vietnam-US trade relations”,

dong-cua-quan-he-thuong-mai-viet-my- 20191225213308569.htm.

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