Hammer and pickle: Vietnam-style reform would mean big changes for North Korea

Nestled in a leafy park between a rusting Soviet fighter jet and the old East German embassy, a lonely statue of Lenin stands in the center of Hanoi as a symbol of the Russian revolutionary’s inspiration to Communist-ruled Vietnam.

In 1986, one year after the statue was erected, Vietnam embarked on its comprehensive program of “doi moi” reforms which transformed the country from a war-torn agrarian basket case into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

Today, Hanoi’s “Lenin Park” is popular, not for Vietnamese paying homage to their communist roots but for a dedicated crew of skateboarders aping their Western cohorts.

As Vietnam prepares to host North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump’s second summit later this month, the Vietnamese model of reform is being widely touted as the economic path for impoverished and isolated North Korea to follow.

Vietnamese reforms have seen per capita GDP soar almost five-fold since 1986 and kept Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, which tolerates little dissent, firmly in power.

But it has necessitated political change and levels of individual freedoms that would require major reforms in North Korea, where Kim Jong Un exercises almost total control and is revered by state propaganda as a living deity.

“When all the power is in the hand of a single person, decisions are prone to mistakes,” said Cao Si Kiem, the former governor of Vietnam’s state bank who enacted sweeping reforms of Hanoi’s monetary policy from 1989-1997.

“We had to accept power dilution,” Kiem told Reuters, referring to Vietnam’s era of opening up.

When Vietnamese revolutionary and founding president Ho Chi Minh’s health was failing during the Vietnam War, his right hand man in the Party, Le Duan, took over and ruled as a strongman until his death in 1986.Duan’s demise ended Vietnam’s “strongman era”, and helped facilitate economic and then political reforms, said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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