President Trump meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty

March 4, 2019   4 mins

The choice of Hanoi for the Donald Trump Kim Jong-Un summit was wonderfully ironic since the city provides a cautionary tale about the fate of communism in a global capitalist economy. A student once sent me a photo from the city. In the foreground was a river, in the river the remains of an American bomber jutting out of the water. In the background, on the riverbank, was a row of luxury condos like those that might be seen in a docklands development in Liverpool.

That photo juxtaposed two attempts to defeat communism, one futile, the other enormously successful. The US spent billions of dollars and nearly 60,000 lives trying to eradicate communism from Vietnam. They were humiliated and finally withdrew in 1975. Communism was gradually undermined when Coca-Cola, Levis and those condos arrived.

Trump loves condos. He sees Vietnam as a perfect example of what North Korea might become with a little encouragement from the good old USA. Just before the summit, he tweeted:

In another tweet, the President predicted that “Chairman Kim will make a wise decision!” Trump, bless him, clearly cannot understand why anyone would ever reject economic development. To him, it seems inconceivable that beautiful North Korean beaches have no hotels on them.

On Thursday, Kim made a decision, but it was not – by Trump’s standards – wise. He refused to give up his nukes in exchange for the removal of sanctions.  He turned his back on that economic miracle. Most commentators, including Trump himself, have concluded that Kim is too enamoured of his weapons. That’s probably true, but my own guess is that he’s also justifiably frightened of what economic development will mean for his dictatorship.

According to Michael Green, a North Korea expert who advised George W. Bush, Kim “wants cash. He wants the U.S. to agree to lift U.N. … sanctions.” But he wants development that he can control, not the sort that Trump envisages. “He does not want the kind of opening that China or Vietnam did, where foreigners wander around the countryside talking about democracy.” More importantly, he realises that if his people cease to suffer, they will become harder to control. On that point, he’s right.

Back in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson offered Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communist leader, a deal. If Ho would agree to withdraw Viet Cong guerrillas from South Vietnam, Johnson would build a $1 billion dam on the Mekong River.  The dam would facilitate flood control and provide electricity for impoverished villages throughout the South. To Johnson, the offer seemed impossible to refuse. Who could possibly reject the riches that dam would bring?

The origins of that offer are easy to trace. In 1937, Johnson was a junior Congressman helping to implement Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the Hill Country of Texas. That meant bringing electrical power to communities far from the grid.  For the impoverished people of the Hill Country, Johnson was, forever afterwards, “the man who brought the light”. That phrase has a lovely practical and symbolic significance. He literally brought light to their homes, but also brought enlightenment – the kind of liberal awakening that can only come if a people are freed from a hand-to-mouth existence.

Johnson wanted to “bring the light” to Vietnam. “The task”, he boasted, “is nothing less than to enrich the hopes and the existence of more than 100 million people. The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own Tennessee Valley Authority.” Johnson understood that peaceful economic development could undermine communism much more efficiently than military power ever could. In the wake of electricity would come radios and televisions that would break Ho’s grip on peasant minds. Development would turn those peasants into budding capitalists unwilling to tolerate the privation that communism implied.

Ho fully understood the implications and intentions of Johnson’s cunning plan and therefore rudely rejected the President’s offer. For Ho, privation was essential to the success of the revolution.  In typically cryptic manner, he repeatedly stressed: “A firefly can set a field ablaze. But, for that to happen, the field must be very dry.” What he meant was that a small revolutionary movement can capture the hearts of a people but only if those people are sufficiently ‘dry’ – suitably downtrodden. The greater their misery, the more powerful their commitment to revolution.

The communists did improve the lives of Vietnamese peasants, but only in a very controlled fashion. Peasants were given medical care, sanitation, security and a parcel of land. But they were strictly prevented from rising above a hand-to-mouth existence. Farmers could barter for essentials, but they could not earn enough to buy simple luxuries. Competing sources of political enlightenment – like schoolteachers – were assassinated. Terror remained an important element of control.  Suffering was the fuel that drove the revolution.

Ho’s revolution was one of the most successful political movements of the 20thcentury. Through brilliant organisation and indoctrination his followers were able to defeat the French and then the Americans. But suffering was only tolerable as long as there existed an enemy who, according to the propaganda, threatened an even worse existence. After 1975, that external threat disappeared and dedication borne of struggle proved impossible to sustain. Tired of privation, the people demanded progress. Henceforth, their loyalty had to be bought with capitalist trinkets – first Coke, eventually condos. A gradual process of embourgeoisement turned Vietnam into a country that is communist only in name.

Kim is fully aware of what happened in Vietnam. The wonderful economic miracle that Trump lauds is something he finds frightening. When the two leaders met in Singapore last summer, Trump showed a glitzy four-minute video in which images of war and destruction were juxtaposed with those of gleaming cityscapes and Trumpian towers. For Kim, that video must have seemed like a horror film.

Kim is painfully aware that his country is impoverished. The CIA estimated that North Korea had a gross domestic product of $28 billion in 2013. In contrast, the GDP of South Korea tops $1.5 trillion. But he’s also aware that the economic miracle of his southern neighbour came thanks to massive foreign investment and he’s reluctant to allow that kind of interference in his country. While he’s not against foreign investment, he wants strategically isolated projects that will not pollute the minds of his people. Bringing light to his dark country seems to him dangerous.

Kim, like Ho, understands that the fields need to be kept dry. Suffering is essential in order to maintain loyalty to his regime. At the moment, as long as Kim controls the narrative, suffering can be blamed on those nasty imperialists in the West. UN sanctions are, in this sense, a convenient symbol of Western perfidy, a focus on which North Koreans can direct their rage.

All of this suggests that Trump has nothing sufficiently attractive to offer Kim. Giving up precious nukes in exchange for a removal of the sanctions seems to him a rather poor deal; their symbolic value is profound. The last thing he wants is a Trump-style economic miracle bringing condos – and all that follows – to the banks of the Taedong River.

Gerard DeGroot recently retired from the School of History at St Andrews. He has written books on various aspects of twentieth century history, including moon landings and the nuclear bomb.