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North Korean Prime Minister Visits Vietnam

  • Matt Steinglass

North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il ended his visit to Vietnam, where he traveled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Kim is responsible for running North Korea's economy, and is believed to want to apply lessons from Vietnam's economic reforms to North Korea's failing command economy. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

Carp splashed for a meal Monday, as Prime Minister Kim Yong Il of North Korea tossed fish food into the pond in front of the small wooden house where Ho Chi Minh lived when he was President of Vietnam.

In the ceremonial visit Kim referred to the shared Communist roots of North Korea and Vietnam.

Kim said he hoped the two countries could take their historical friendship to a new level.

But the fish desperately fighting for Kim's handouts were an uncomfortable echo of the real reason for his visit: the failure of the North Korean command economy, which has made its people dependent on food aid from abroad.

Paul French is an expert on North Korea, and the director of the market research firm Access Asia. He says one reason for Kim's trip is the North Korean leadership's recognition that it needs to imitate the kinds of economic reforms that have made Vietnam's economy successful.

"There is this reform, technocratic element in North Korea that actually realizes they've got to do some reforms," he said. "At the moment, I think the reformers are probably feeling quite strong, and this is partly why Kim is undertaking these trips."

An earlier round of market-oriented reforms in North Korea failed in 2003. Financial sanctions imposed by the United States in 2006 over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program deepened the country's isolation.

The U.S. lifted those sanctions in February after Pyongyang agreed to scrap its nuclear weapons program, reviving hopes of economic reform.

Kim's trip, which will take him from Vietnam to Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos, is aimed partly at learning lessons from export-oriented Asian economies.

French says Kim is also trying to curry favor with Southeast Asian countries in order to gain help from international lending institutions.

"They have to resolve this issue of dealing with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and people like that," he said. "They're not going to get any serious private investment from investment banks, or from funds, or from anything, until what's called the catalyst lenders, like the World Bank, go in there and do it."

On Sunday, Kim visited a privatized coalmine near Haiphong, part of Vietnam's effort to bring foreign investment into its energy industry. Kim was also scheduled to travel to Ho Chi Minh City to visit an export-processing zone.

Kim's trip has provided Vietnam with a chance to exercise its growing international influence, says Duong Chinh Thuc, Vietnam's former ambassador to North Korea.

Thuc says Vietnam has long wanted to play a role as mediator between North Korea and the rest of the world.

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