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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Can the U.S. and North Korea
Take the Same Path as the U.S.
and Vietnam?
February 12, 2019

Q1. Do you think there is a validity to this idea that the US-Vietnam post-war
reconciliation can be replicated between the US and North Korea -- or it is just a pipe
ANSWER: I think the idea that US-Vietnam post-war reconciliation could serve as a
model for US-North Korea reconciliation is possible but with strong reservations. First,
the Vietnam War was brought to an end by a formal Agreement on Ending the War
and Restoring the Peace in 1973. This agreement ended armed hostilities and resulted
in the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam. This Agreement also set
reciprocal obligations on the parties to exchange prisoners and in Vietnam’s case
provide an accounting for U.S. personnel missing in action. The U.S. was obligated to
heal the wounds of war. The United States later withdrew from the Agreement
because of communist Vietnamese violations in 1975 and the MIA issue became the
main stumbling bloc to normalization for two decades.
In North Korea’s case, the 1953 armistice agreement could be turned into a Korean
Peace Agreement thus meeting the DPRK’s insistence on U.S guarantees for its
security. This Peace Agreement could include provisions for “Restoring the Peace” to
include trust building measures, exchange of liaison offices, and humanitarian
There is an interesting parallel that could be drawn between the MIA issue in US-
Vietnam relations and the denuclearization issue in US-North Korea relations. Both of
these issues were the center piece of negotiations on normalization. In the Vietnam
case the MIA questions was transformed from a legal one (obligations under the 1973
Agreement) to a humanitarian one. Progress on the MIA issue created an environment
for the gradual improvement of relations in other areas.
The denuclearization issue offers a roughly similar path forward. Small steps by North
Korea could be reciprocated by the United States. North Korea could admit
international inspectors, for example, and the US could exchange liaison offices with
North Korea.
Another rough parallel between Vietnam and North Korea relates to sanctions.
Vietnam was subject to unilateral U.S. sanctions following the Gulf of Tonkin incident
and further sanctions after 1975. Vietnam was also subject to sanctions by the

international community after it intervened in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Further, in

the mid-1980s Vietnam was included in sanctions under the International Trafficking
in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Vietnam’s economy was badly affected and its leaders “bit
the bullet”, and withdrew from Cambodia and agreed to a comprehensive political
settlement. The international community ended its sanctions. U.S. sanctions were
removed piecemeal over a period of time and effectively ended in 2016 when
President Obama ended all ITAR restrictions.
North Korea has been the subject of UN sanctions over a number of years. These
sanctions could be lifted piecemeal in response to steps taken by North Korea to
The Vietnam case illustrates that as political relations improved so too did economic
relations. In 2000 the U.S. and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement. Vietnam
later joined the World Trade Organization after the U.S. granted permanent normal
trade relations status. In short order, the United States became Vietnam’s largest
export market and Vietnam developed a hefty trade surplus.
Vietnam’s success could be replicated over the long-run by North Korea as sanctions
are lifted and foreign investment flows in. This is predicated on North Korea’s
willingness to adopt market economy reforms.
There are major differences between the two cases. South Vietnam collapsed and
Vietnam was reunified. Normalization was negotiated between two parties, the U.S.
and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Korea remains divided and there are three
parties that must negotiate.
A second major difference is the question of regime security. Vietnam won the war
and did not face an existential military threat – conventional and nuclear – from the
United States. Vietnam’s communist one-party regime was securely in power.
In contrast, North Korea faces a strong South Korea backed by U.S. military forces
stationed not only in South Korea but in the region (Japan and Guam). Because North
Korea possesses nuclear weapons it also faces an existential nuclear threat from the
United States. North Korea’s dynastic regime holds power through totalitarian rule.
But it needs nuclear weapons to guarantee regime security. Denuclearizing North
Korea, from Pyongyang perspective, will require at a minimum the withdrawal of U.S.
forces from South Korea and Japan.
Q2. Were there some special forces and circumstances that made US-Vietnamese
reconciliation so remarkable and fast (just 20 years after a savage war). With Korea
we are talking 65 year's after war's end ...
The most important special circumstance that enabled U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation
was the division in American society over the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War
Hanoi always drew a distinction between the peace-loving American people and the
imperialist American government. In other words, there was a basis for future
reconciliation. This was tempered by the influence of the domestic American POW-
MIA lobby that held virtual veto power over U.S.-Vietnam normalization. In 1978 the
U.S. and Vietnam were very close to normalization, with the site for the U.S. Embassy
under discussion, when Congress intervened to prevent “reparations” from being part
of the normalization package.

However, as progress was made in the full accounting of MIAs, conditions were
created for normalization that had the support of successive administrations from
President Jimmy Carter forward. The role of Vietnam Veterans, such as Republican
Senator John McCain and Democrat Senator John Kerry was also important.
A second special circumstance between Vietnam and North Korea relates to their
external relationships with major patrons. The Soviet Union was the cornerstone of
Vietnam’s foreign policy until its collapse in late 1991. This spurred Vietnam to make
determined steps to “diversify and multilateralize” its foreign relations beyond Russia,
Eastern Europe and India. It is no coincidence that in July 1995 Vietnam normalized
relations with the U.S. and joined ASEAN as its sixth member in the same week.
North Korea, on the other hand, is totally dependent on China’s goodwill to survive.
China, on the other hand, has a national interest in preventing the North Korean
dynastic regime from collapsing and the reunification of Korea allied to the United
States. This relationship was markedly different from the Soviet-Vietnam relationship.

“Can the U.S. and North Korea Take the Same Path as the U.S. and Vietnam?” Thayer
Consultancy Background Brief, February 12, 2019. All background briefs are posted on
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.