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North Korean Premier Visits Vietnam

  • Matt Steinglass

North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il, the country's second highest-ranking leader after Kim Jong Il, arrived in Vietnam Friday evening on a rare trip abroad. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi the visit is mostly focused on reviving trade between the two countries.

A Vietnamese military band performed a tune seldom heard in world capitals Saturday morning: the national anthem of North Korea.

The occasion was a meeting between Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il, who arrived in Vietnam for a five-day visit, a rare foreign trip for a North Korean leader.

Kim says the purpose of the trip is to enhance the two countries' traditionally close relationship.

Officials from both nations signed agreements Saturday on agriculture, sports, tourism and cultural exchanges.

Vietnam is one of the few countries that has friendly relations with North Korea, dating from when both were members of the Soviet bloc. The head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, Nong Duc Manh, visited Pyongyang earlier this month.

But Hanoi's friendship with Pyongyang is not what it once was. Duong Chinh Thuc was Vietnam's ambassador to North Korea from 1992 to 1996. He says the success of Vietnam's free-market reforms and the failure of Pyongyang's state-run economy have weakened relations.

Thuc says trade between the two countries has shrunk to zero. He says many people think North Korea should study the Vietnamese and Chinese models.

Paul French, an Asian market analyst and North Korea expert, says Vietnam's model may be attractive to Pyongyang, because its reforms have not yet gone as far as those in China.

In an email, French says North Korea will be interested in exploring Vietnam's model if it offers an economic boost without what Pyongyang might see as 'spiritual pollution'.

Much of Premier Kim's trip will be spent studying Vietnam's growing economy. Kim will meet with Vietnam's Ministry of Planning and Investment, and visit a recently privatized coal mine and an export processing zone in Ho Chi Minh City.

The two countries may also discuss the issue of North Korean asylum-seekers, who sometimes use Vietnam as a gateway to South Korea.

But former ambassador Thuc says it may be some time before Pyongyang will imitate Vietnam's reforms and open up to the outside world.

Thuc says North Korean officials often argue that Vietnam could open its doors, because it was already unified, while North and South Korea are not. He says they worry that opening up might cause their political system to fall, or their people to flee to the South.

Cambodia and Laos are also on the North Korean Premier's itinerary, but first, he will travel on Tuesday to a country even more open than Vietnam: Malaysia.