Vietnam’s Model Would Spell the End of Kim Jong Un

There's no place for individual strongmen in Hanoi's version of communist power.

By Bennett Murray

This picture taken on January 24, 2016 shows a worker repainting a large statue of the late president Ho Chi Minh, founder of today's communist Vietnam, at a public park in the southern city of Can (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on January 24, 2016 shows a worker repainting a large statue of the late president Ho Chi Minh, founder of today's communist Vietnam, at a public park in the southern city of Can (STR/AFP/Getty Images) 

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Hanoi on July 8 after a tense working meeting in Pyongyang, Vietnam was on his mind. Speaking in a city pummeled by U.S. bombs five decades ago and where U.S. servicemen were held captive for years in squalid conditions, Pompeo invited Kim Jong Un to look at the fellow communist state for inspiration.

Pompeo was not just trying to flatter his hosts. The nation’s journey from impoverished pariah to hot frontier market has not escaped Kim. South Korean media reported that he brought up the country’s successes several times during his April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying he saw it as a way forward. The appeal for Kim is obvious: Perhaps it is possible to have peace, prosperity—and the uninterrupted rule of a single party?

That might be true. But Kim should be forewarned that the Vietnam model might spell the death of his own rule, even if it preserves the rest of the Pyongyang regime.

The Vietnam model broadly refers to a series of reforms—known as doi moi, meaning “renewal”—that were first rolled out in 1986. Vietnam, at the time, was locked in cold wars with both the United States and China, with the Soviet bloc providing its only lifeline. In a process that continues to this day, the state slowly but steadily began devolving economic power to form a “socialist-oriented market economy.”

The government continues to hold on to key sectors, such as energy and finance, but state-owned firms coexist alongside ExxonMobil and Ford in the nation’s 21st-century economy. The system is somewhat similar to that of its giant neighbor, China, but with less red tape, as Vietnam has liberalized its markets to secure free trade agreements. On the World Bank’s ranking of countries by the ease of doing business there, Vietnam comes in 68th place, while China comes in 78th. The shift in policies has created a booming modern economy.

But there’s a catch for any prospective dictator. The party’s willingness to shed leaders with abandon is an integral part of the Vietnamese model. Since 1986, Vietnam has cycled through five general secretaries—the country’s de facto head of government—and seven prime ministers. Some have been ditched rather unceremoniously amid brutal infighting in the central committee, where factions fight vigorously behind closed doors before emerging with the appearance of consensus.

The lack of a strongman on top is a feature, not a bug.

While Kim is the third generation to inherit power, and China’s Xi Jinping, the son of a prominent revolutionary leader himself, is returning to the party’s strongman roots crafted by Mao Zedong, communist Vietnam has always opted for collective leadership. Even Ho Chi Minh found himself sidelined throughout his presidency, never enjoying the power of Mao, Stalin, or any of the Kims. Some of the most fateful decisions of the war, even the Tet Offensive, were made without his consent.

And while the image of Ho Chi Minh is omnipresent in contemporary Vietnam, with his image adorning billboards, posters, and even online memes created by pro-regime influencers, the images of living politicians are never seen in public, nor are their collections of writings found in bookstores. The cult of personality is a privilege of the dead in Vietnam; there is no Xi figure, let alone a Kim.

The result is a country where ordinary citizens have no stake in the fate of any particular politician. When one brings up politics today in Vietnam, it is common even for educated locals to not be entirely sure who their leader is. While they generally know the names of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and President Tran Dai Quang, they rarely know what exactly they do, nor who is senior.

Their confusion is understandable, as even professional observers of Vietnamese politics often stumble when trying to explain the national power structure. Figures come and go from power at a rate comparable to Western democracies but with none of the transparency. Journalists and researchers rely heavily on unverified rumors to get a sense of what is going on in the politburo. But given the rate at which leaders cycle, it’s certain that Communist politics in Vietnam remain a lively, unstable affair, even as the party itself thrives.

In contrast, the Workers’ Party of Korea is a showboat for the Kim dynasty. Its holds no regular party congresses, having allowed 36 years to lapse before it held its most recent one in 2016. Nor is there any indication that its central committee would be allowed to pose any serious challenge to Kim’s leadership. That it could peacefully force Kim to take an early retirement, as is common in Vietnam, is unthinkable.

Could Kim replicate the success of doi moi without copying Hanoi’s political philosophy? Possibly, but decentralization, by necessity, entails devolution of state powers to private actors. While its history of collective leadership provided the Vietnamese party with the flexibility necessary to accommodate the interests of a private sector, the Kim family has proved stubbornly resistant to economic innovation over the past 70 years unless forced, as they were by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kim has attempted some changes, but if he went for wholesale economic reform, he would have to create a new, risky script for regime survival. Chinese and Vietnamese innovators in the 1980s were able to send numerous missions to the United States, Soviet Russia, and elsewhere to learn from their models. North Korea hasn’t put the groundwork in yet. And Kim is no economist. Change would force him to allow technocrats around him to write the new rulebook for a game he does not completely understand.

Kim may be tempted to think he can become an all-powerful figure in the vein of Xi, only with Vietnam’s greater economic liberalization and better ties with Washington. But Xi has only been in power for five years and was only able to seize control after China had experienced decades of economic growth and reforms in the post-Mao era under collective leadership. He also had the benefit of adapting to the economic status quo rather than inventing a new one. As Kim has yet to establish himself as either an economic or political innovator, his personal success would be far from certain.

In his mid-30s, Kim potentially has decades left to either rule or, at best, become politically sidelined. While a more prosperous North Korea would no doubt benefit Kim personally if he were around to enjoy it—he may, for instance, be able to fly his own plane to the next bilateral summit—the potential personal risks presented by a Pyongyang outside the Kim family’s control are great, as Jiang Qing learned after her husband Mao Zedong died. Within a month, Jiang and her cronies had been toppled in an internal coup. With countless purges and executions of influential party officials under Kim’s family’s rule, he knows that the knives will be out for him if things change—but he may not know who would stab first.

Kim’s career, and possibly his life, may already be backed into a corner where the best shot of survival is to stick to the model that has served his family’s peculiar regime for the past seven decades, granting concessions only when absolutely necessary. Following the path of Vietnam would certainly be a bold step forward for Kim—it would very likely give the Workers’ Party of Korea a fresh lease on life—but it is not one that would necessary ensure his own safety.

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