February 7, 2019 – Vietnam’s selection as the venue for the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is largely a matter of convenience and security, but not without bigger stakes.
Washington’s goal for the talks Feb. 27-28 is for North Korea to agree give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea frames the issue more broadly, seeking a removal of the “nuclear threat” from U.S. military forces in South Korea.
Host Vietnam hopes to boost its diplomatic leverage against its powerful neighbor, China, which contests waters in the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi.
But Vietnam’s history as a U.S. adversary that transitioned on its own terms to a dynamic free-market economy under a communist political system suggests a larger meaning for the summit.
“By choosing Vietnam, the two leaders send a strong strategic message to the world that they are willing to make a breakthrough decision to turn an enemy into a friend and together make the world a better place, following the example of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship,” said Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
America’s past military involvement in Vietnam, whether it’s seen as tragic or noble, provides a historically dramatic stage for Trump to again draw attention to his foreign policy accomplishments.
As a single-party communist state, Vietnam boasts tight political control and an efficient security apparatus, and successfully hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in 2017, and the regional edition of the high-powered World Economic Forum last year, both in the central coastal city of Da Nang.
“Like Singapore, where they met last time, Vietnam is a very secure place,” said Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Vietnam’s security police are able to keep away crowds of the curious and keep journalists in designated areas.”
Trump’s attendance at the 2017 APEC meeting means “he’s familiar with the country and has good rapport with its leaders,” Hiebert said.