As Vietnam prepares to host the second summit between Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump, it has leapt into action to return ties with its old ally, North Korea, to their former lustre – and to position itself as a partner of choice should Pyongyang play a bigger role in the international community.

Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to discuss details of the February 27-28 summit in Hanoi amid growing speculation that the North Korean leader will make a pre-summit state visit to the Southeast Asian country.

North Korea is a friend that had helped Vietnam a lot in the past
Former diplomat Nguyen Vinh Quang

The foreign minister’s visit is seen as evidence of a renewed commitment to relations with Pyongyang, and as a sign Hanoi’s economic and diplomatic progress are internationally recognised and can serve as a road map for the hermit kingdom.

Pham, who doubles as deputy prime minister, boarded a flight with North Korea’s national carrier, Air Koryo, from Beijing accompanied by five government officials and Vietnamese journalists, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported.

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“North Korea is a friend that had helped Vietnam a lot in the past,” said Nguyen Vinh Quang, formerly Hanoi’s top diplomat for China and Northeast Asia.

“In recent years, they’ve experienced hardship, being isolated on the international stage. What Vietnam can see ahead is light – meaning North Korea’s situation … can be improved and North Korea can develop.”

Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Kim would likely arrive in Vietnam on February 25 or 26 for the first visit by a North Korean leader to the country in nearly six decades.

“The visit of deputy prime minister Pham Binh Minh to Pyongyang is an indication of this plan, as [he] is likely to be there to discuss in detail the preparation for [Kim’s] visit as well as the Trump-Kim summit,” said Le.

Kim, who in November sent his foreign minister Ri Yong-ho on a rare visit to Vietnam, has been quoted in South Korean media expressing his desire to imitate Hanoi’s economic opening. Officially socialist like North Korea, Vietnam introduced sweeping market reforms known as doi moi from 1986 that saw its per capita GDP grow five times to US$2,400 today.

The country now ranks among the fastest-growing economies in the world, with GDP growth of over 7 per cent in 2018. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said on Tuesday that the choice of Hanoi was proof of the country’s praiseworthy development and investment environment.

“By improving its relationship with North Korea and potentially helping the hermit kingdom with lessons learned from its own economic reform during the 1980s and early 1990s, Vietnam will be able to demonstrate its economic successes to the world by exporting its reform model to another country, and thus to further improve its status in the international community,” said Viet Phuong Nguyen, a research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

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Nguyen Vinh Quang, who currently serves as an adviser at the Centre for Strategic Studies and International Development in Hanoi, said he had witnessed North Korean officials become increasingly interested in Vietnam’s economic transformation during his time as a diplomat.

“Starting in 1990, until as far as 1995 or 1996, North Korea initially didn’t support Vietnam’s reform, but then gradually showed support for it,” he said. “Later, they praised Vietnam’s reform as a success and a rightful path.”

To emulate Vietnam, however, Kim would need to relinquish the near-absolute control he exerts over his country. Unlike the dynastic North, one-party Vietnam has not been ruled by a single strongman ruler since the late 1980s and tolerates a comparatively high level of personal freedom.

When he visits, Kim may tour areas that are home to major industry and infrastructure, as he did in Singapore during the first summit with Trump.

“Well-performing companies like [real-estate developer] Vinhomes, THACO [Truong Hai Auto Corporation] or [construction machinery manufacturing firm] Hoa Phat would leave a good impression of private companies, developing a market economy – examples that could be soon replicated [in North Korea],” said Dao Huy Giam, Vietnam’s former representative to the World Trade Organisation, referring to some of the country’s biggest companies.

North Korea turning the U.S. into a friend is … no longer a fantasy
Former diplomat Nguyen Vinh Quang

Le, of the Yusof Ishak Institute, said Kim could tour surrounding provinces that had undergone major development, such as Hai Phong and Quang Ninh.

“The new Van Don Airport could be one of the options,” he said. “In Hai Phong, Vinfast’s automotive manufacturing complex in the Dinh Vu Economic Zone could be a good choice for Vietnam to showcase its successful economic reforms and industrialisation potential to both the North Korean delegation and the international audience.”

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Once a bitter enemy of the US, Hanoi normalised relations with Washington in 1995, drawing a line under decades of hostility stretching back to the Vietnam war. Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations and remain technically at war after hostilities in the Korean war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

In his New Year’s address, Kim said he believed relations with the US would soon “bear good fruit”, while warning his country could take a “new path” if Washington did not ease pressure and sanctions.

Former diplomat Nguyen Vinh Quang said Vietnam offered an example for “turning a foe into a friend”.

“Now North Korea turning the US into a friend is something very practical, it’s no longer a fantasy,” he said.

Although Vietnam has a history of turbulent relations with China, North Korea’s main patron, they share common cause on Pyongyang’s denuclearisation.

“It is not wise for Vietnam to upset China in this strategic endeavour,” said Vu Minh Khuong, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “I believe Vietnam will work in a way that both Vietnam and China can claim their credit in the success of the summit.”

Relations between Hanoi and Pyongyang, two of Asia’s last communist-ruled states, have waxed and waned since the 1950s. National founders Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-sung carried out reciprocal state visits near the start of their rule as socialist strongmen.

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During the Vietnam war, North Korea supported Hanoi with military supplies and air power in its fight against the Americans and South Vietnamese. Ties took a downturn, however, after Vietnam invaded fellow communist country Cambodia in 1978, and again when it established diplomatic relations with rival South Korea in 1992.

If North Korea is reluctant to reform itself … Vietnam will stay distant
Vu Minh Khuong, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

North Korean officials last year reportedly expressed regret after a Vietnamese woman was charged over the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader’s half-brother, at a Malaysian airport. Pyongyang officially denies any responsibility for the killing.

“Vietnam’s interest in improving ties with Pyongyang will be conditional,” Vu said. “If North Korea vigorously joins the international community as Vietnam has done since 1986, Vietnam will definitely be very keen to strengthen the relationship with them. If North Korea is reluctant to reform itself and remains elusive, Vietnam will stay distant from them.”

Additional reporting by Lam Le in Hanoi