Former pariah can teach Kim a thing or two

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2008, 12:00am

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, is famously secretive, so it is not surprising that details of visits he will reportedly make to Vietnam and China next week are murky. There has been no official confirmation of the trip, but that means little; Pyongyang's leadership is expert in the use of smoke and mirrors and for all the international community's efforts to foster trust and transparency, the Stalinist nation prefers to keep its agenda well hidden.

If Vietnam is indeed on Mr Kim's agenda, though, there is some measure of hope for change. The communist country was at one time also a pariah state and it learned that exclusion from the wider world was not in the interests of its people. In this light, a first visit by a North Korean leader to Vietnam would be hugely symbolic.

In Vietnam, Mr Kim would find much to inspire him. The Southeast Asian nation has, on its own terms, done a laudable job in modernising and instituting reforms in a sustainable manner. It chalked up record economic growth of 8.5 per cent last year; a figure only slightly lower is projected for this year.

Hanoi has made progress on human rights, particularly in terms of religion. But business transactions are still mired in much red tape. Far greater efforts are needed to bring about political reform and tackle corruption.

Still, the leadership is clearly comfortable about its circumstances and the path to prosperity and stability the country is headed down. Such changes are remarkable given the isolation that Vietnam experienced before the United States ended its economic embargo on the country in February 1994.

Aid agencies say North Korea faces a severe humanitarian crisis this year after devastating floods. The election in December in South Korea of a government that has tied economic handouts to progress on denuclearisation and human rights has angered Pyongyang. If Mr Kim goes to Hanoi and Beijing, it may be because he wants Vietnam and China to make up the shortfall in aid from the South.

Vietnam's inclusion on his travels would be a good sign. Mr Kim would find a model worth emulating.