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Awkward Allies: North Korea and Vietnam

A recent article from NK News examines the slightly awkward relationship between North Korea and Vietnam since the beginning of the Cold War. Starting in the 1950s, Hanoi and Pyonyang became uneasy allies, united by their political ideologies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the countries began on decidedly different paths: North Korea became completely reliant on Bejing, while Vietnam opened its doors to capitalism and, in turn, South Korean investors.

Between 1957 and 2002, the countries signed 135 bilateral agreements, covering everything from cultural cooperation to sea transportation. During the American War, North Korea sent 200 pilots to Vietnam, 14 of which met their fate in its skies. Ho Chi Minh met with Kim Il Sung on a few occasions but was put off by the North Korean leader's uncomprimising ideology and cult of personality.

Back in the 1960s, when North Korea was in better shape than north Vietnam, the Vietnam-DPRK Friendship Kindergarten was established in Hanoi. The school, today considered one of the capital’s elite kindergardens, is basically the last remaining symbol of the once-strong link between the two countries. Though North Korean and Vietnamese officials still hold meetings, economic ties are virtually nonexistent. The Vietnamese government, however, regularly donates thousands of tons of rice to North Korea, and the nations cooperate in arts, sports and even martial arts training for state police.

Things started to get complicated in the 70s when North Korea, siding with China, supported the Khmer Rouge in their struggle against Vietnamese occupation.

The relationship became irreparably strained in 1996 when, in the midst of famine, North Korea failed to pay Vietnam for 20,000 tons of rice, valued at US$18 million. In attempt to remedy the situation, Kim Jong Il sent two Yugo class (midget) submarines to Vietnam. While the Vietnamese navy uses these vessels for training at Cam Ranh Bay, their value fell far short of the debt owed by North Korea. 

Head over to NK News for more about the relationship between North Korea and Vietnam, how Vietnamese perceive their northern counterparts and South Korea’s increasingly active role in Vietnam’s economy.

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