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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 00:28 GMT
Vietnam 'key for N Korea reform'
By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese service

North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong-il is in Vietnam on an official visit, which has raised hopes that the so-called hermit kingdom might, at last, be opening up.

Kim Yong-il on a tour of Nui Beo coal mine in Vietnam, 28/10
Vietnam has treated Mr Kim to a luxurious stay

This rare trip through South East Asia will also take Mr Kim to Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.

But some analysts believe that Vietnam is where the North Koreans are turning for some much-needed lessons in market economy.

"I think there is currently great interest in North Korea in Vietnam's way of economic reform," says Hwang Gwi-yeon, a professor in international relations at the Pusan University of Foreign Studies, South Korea.

"The situation in North Korea is similar to that in Vietnam many years ago and Vietnam has provided a very suitable model of development."

Mr Kim, who is in charge of economic policy in the North Korean cabinet, will, no doubt, try to gather experience and establish contacts in the fast-growing region.

He arrived Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, late last week with a 30-strong entourage including Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun and Minister of Agriculture Ri Kyong-sik.

Their modest-looking Tupolev 134B plane, which was also used by the Vietnamese national carrier some 20 years ago, sat at Noi Bai airport like a bleak reminder of Hanoi's own pre-renovation past.

But the days of centralised economy are long gone, and the Vietnamese are not shy to show the guests from Pyongyang what kind of prosperity economic reforms can bring.

Mr Kim was put in a luxury black Mercedes limousine before being whisked off to his designated hotel - a five-star establishment on the famous West Lake.

'Eager' to visit

During his four days in the country, the North Korean PM has witnessed some of the more successful examples of Vietnam's transition to the market economy.

He was taken to visit a coal mine and a sea port in the north, before going south to visit an industrial processing zone near Ho Chi Minh City.

Pham Tien Dam, an official from Nui Beo coal mine in Quang Ninh province, said Mr Kim was impressed with what he saw.

Communism and capitalism existing at the same time - Vietnam has proved it can be done
Professor Hwang Gwi-yeon,
Pusan University

"He didn't ask any questions but went directly to the mine with his people," Mr Pham said.

"He was eager to visit our mine because in his opinion coal was the food for industrial production and he was told that our company is doing very well."

Vietnam, one of the few remaining communist countries, has certainly drawn an impressive picture of economic development since the doi moi, or renovation, process began in 1986.

With a 9% growth rate projected for 2008, the Vietnamese leadership hopes to take the country off the list of poor nations and make it a mid-income one as soon as next year.

Some analysts believe that the most attractive aspect of Vietnam's development to North Korea is the way it has maintained political stability and economic growth in a one-party regime.

"Vietnam is totally stable. It is a communist state but its economy develops in a capitalist way," says Prof Hwang.

"Communism and capitalism existing at the same time? Vietnam has proved it can be done."

'Joyfully' accepted

North Korea had a brush with capitalism in 2002 when leader Kim Jong-il appointed a Chinese-Dutch businessman to set up and run a special economic zone near the Chinese border.

But the plan for the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region was dropped after the businessman, Yang Bin, was arrested by the Chinese for committing "commercial crimes".

The arrest was interpreted by many as Beijing's way of expressing its anger about not being consulted in the matter, which in the future might reduce the dependence of Pyongyang on its mighty neighbour.

The Vietnam model seems to be so attractive to the North Koreans that Kim Jong-il himself is said to be considering going to experience it at first hand.

During his trip to North Korea in October, Vietnam's Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh extended an invitation to Kim Jong-il to visit Vietnam.

Vietnamese media reported that he "joyfully accepted" the offer.

The Chinese language weekly, Yazhou Zhoukan, based in Hong Kong, quoted the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem as saying that the North Korean PM's trip is partly aimed at preparing for Chairman Kim's visit.

While the date for that visit has not yet been disclosed, speculation has already started on how Mr Kim, who is afraid of flying, will get to Vietnam.

Should he wish to travel by train, the only way to reach Hanoi is via China - a trip that would take about 70 hours one-way.



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