Vietnam and the Koreas
Editor’s Note: Our American columnist Scott Harris wrote this aticle about the relationship between Vietnam and the two countries on the Korean Peninsula when he is there on a reporting trip to the southern part. The views expressed here are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily representTuoitrenews’ stance.
SEOUL, South Korea – Here’s one thing I’ve learned on my first reporting trip to Korea: Don’t expect a bowl of pho bo that costs nearly $8 in the Gangnam district to be nearly as good as a bowl that costs 30,000 dong (less than $1.50) in Hanoi.
But I wasn’t sent here as a food critic. I’m on a freelance assignment to explore “the Korean moment” in all its glory – not just K-pop and “Gangnam Style,” but also the global success of Samsung, Hyundai, LG and more. My timing is accidentally auspicious, what with North Korea’s young leader, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un, making noises about nuking his fellow Koreans to the south and the U.S. as well.
But for Tuoitrenews, my visit offers a chance to share a vignette about the remarkable fact that Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world that appears to have good relations with both Koreas. If you accept the folk wisdom “all life is high school,” it’s as though Vietnam is a good pal with the popular president of the Honor Society and also gets along with that guy’s misfit cousin, known for his bad attitude and penchant to blow stuff up. Plus, he has lousy internet access.
It happened on a chilly morning in February 2010 when I happened to arrive at the Ho Chi Minh Museum behind a busload of South Korean tourists.
The exhibit depicting Ho’s extraordinary life begins on the top floor, so visitors are beckoned up one of two stairways, left or right, that lead to a common landing, then rise again. The tour guide led the Koreans to the left, so I veered right, reached the first landing – and noticed an entry to a room that the South Koreans never saw, which is perhaps just as well.
The room featured a modest collection of large photographs and an old flag. Fortunately, the explanatory text included an English translation, spiced with old-school revolutionary rhetoric. The text made explicit that this temporary exhibit was erected by North Korea to help the Vietnamese join in the celebration of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s February 16 birthday. The display saluted the long alliance between the two nations, fellow cadres in the epic geopolitical struggle of the 20th century.
Here in the 21st century, however, it felt like a time warp. Two Russian tourists happened to be there, and from their expression and murmurs, it seemed they had the same impression as me. Adding to the discomfort was the knowledge that only two months early North Korea had put the world on edge by shelling a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and wounding civilians. South Korea retaliated but showed restraint.
What really stood out in this display was, well, the reality that was left out. Beyond that room, you’d have a hard time finding North Korea’s influence in Vietnam, while South Korea’s is hard to miss. Within a few months in Vietnam I had met a dozen South Koreans (and since then many more) at my kids’ school and Sunday services. I was familiar with the Daewoo Hotel and the construction of a 72-story, 350-metre tall Keangnam Hanoi Tower, now the capital’s tallest skyscraper. I’ve since learned that South Korea companies have invested billions into Vietnam’s economy, such as Samsung’s $800 million factory. Yes, foreign companies benefit from cheap labor, but those jobs are coveted. Several Korean companies are also credited with making donations that upgrade schools, clinics and housing near where they’ve set up shop.
Vietnam’s kinship to the Koreas is easy to understand. These ancient cultures were influenced by Confucianism and brutally torn apart by geopolitical power struggles of the 20th century. They feel each other’s pain. Vietnam’s unification was achieved after decades of war at great suffering. Yet more than sixty years after the Korean War ended in stalemate, the Koreas haven’t managed to make peace with each other. Remember how, in 2000, the two Koreas marched together into the Sydney Olympics behind a flag that simply depicted the Korean peninsula. What happened?
Imagine that instead of war drums the Koreas could just change the music. We already know the North Korean army is great at goose-stepping. We’ve seen the video. But have they seen “Gangnam Style”?