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NK Foreign Minister’s Vietnam visit may include visit to SEZs: expert

North Korea’s foreign minister is reportedly scheduled to visit Vietnam later this week, with reports saying his intention is to learn more about the Southeast Asian country’s model of economic reform. But experts say Vietnam’s special economic zones may be even higher on the agenda.

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will embark on a trip to Vietnam from Thursday to Sunday, a Vietnamese news agency reported Monday, citing Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry. The ministry added that Ri is to visit Vietnam at the invitation of Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister. 

North Korea`s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho (Yonhap)
North Korea`s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho (Yonhap)

Ri’s Vietnam trip comes at a time when Pyongyang is seeking a way to achieve economic prosperity. The Vietnamese model of development, known as “Doi Moi,” has been suggested by analysts. According to the Yonhap News Agency, Ri told the Vietnamese government he wanted to learn about the country’s experience with economic development.

North Korea has long taken interest in Doi Moi as a viable model for its own economic reform, as Vietnam managed to maintain its socialist identity when it adopted an open-market economy and attracted foreign capital through the plan initiated in 1986.

Though Vietnam’s economic model is an important subject of study for the North, a Seoul-based expert said Ri’s latest trip may involve inspection of Vietnam’s special economic zones, which the Vietnamese government views as the most important source of future economic growth momentum.

“Vietnam is a role model for North Korea in the sense that it was engaged in an actual war with the US, then signed a peace treaty and proceeded to normalize relations with the US -- it’s a country that shows a combination of economic development alongside improvement of ties with the US,” said Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification.

“But the North’s research on Doi Moi has been already active for some time, so instead, Ri is likely to focus on industrial zones in Vietnam and learn about luring foreign investments,” he added.

North Korea is known to have established more 20 special economic zones in recent decades but has been struggling to attract the interest of foreign investors.

After three decades of attracting foreign direct investment, Vietnam has managed to establish 18 coastal economic zones with up to 325 state-supported industrial parks throughout the country.

Hong also saw the upcoming trip as a move on the North’s part to strengthen relations with countries that share its socialist values amid its diplomatic isolation, in line with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s latest state visit to Pyongyang earlier this month.

Regarding the concept of Doi Moi, experts are divided whether the model is apt for North Korea, amid stalled denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Skeptics claim that with layers of sanctions still intact and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks that denuclearizing North Korea will be a “lengthy process,” it is unlikely that North Korea will be able to make noteworthy progress regarding economic reform.

Reform and opening up to the outside world could also bring political instability, as they could invite ideas about democracy, they say.

By Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)

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