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Can U.S. post-war relationship with Vietnam serve as a model for North Korea?

In Vietnam, President Trump is preparing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- and the summit's location isn't a mere coincidence. Indeed, U.S. officials are touting the rapprochement and economic ties that now exist between the U.S. and Vietnam, only decades after brutal warfare divided them. Nick Schifrin reports on whether U.S.-Vietnam relations can serve as a model for North Korea.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning to President Trump's visit to Hanoi for his second summit with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

    U.S. officials have been suggesting that Vietnam, a communist country that reconciled with the U.S. after a deadly war, could serve as a model for North Korea.

    As Nick Schifrin reports from Hanoi, Vietnam has come a very long way since that war, as has the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the U.S., the Vietnam War ended 44 years ago. But 14-year-old Nguyen Thuy Linh is still fighting it in every letter she tries to trace.

    Her and all these children's deformities are because of dioxin, better known as the toxin Agent Orange, dropped by the U.S. on their grandparents' villages. They are the second generation of their families born with physical and intellectual disabilities.

    Tran Thi Nguyet Thuong looks and thinks as a 3-year-old. She's actually 17.

    What will these children's' future be like?

    Nguyen Thi Oanh is their teacher.

  • Nguyen Thi Oanh:

    For them to become normal would be very difficult. They're still learning basic functions, like washing their face, washing their hair, and to teach them even that is a big thing. Some of them wouldn't know how to get home themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During the Vietnam War, known here as the American War, the U.S. dropped more than seven million tons of bombs, three times what it used in World War II. The violence killed three million and drove millions more from their villages. And U.S. planes sprayed Agent Orange to kill trees to exposed fighters, affecting four million Vietnamese, including damaging their genes.

    But if American troops were the culprit, some became the redeemer. This place is known as Friendship Village, established by Vietnam veterans like Chuck Searcy.

  • Chuck Searcy:

    So much what we were doing was actually part of an institutional lie.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Searcy deployed to Vietnam in 1967. He says he witnessed U.S. forces commit terrible acts, but didn't speak out.

    And so he and many veterans returned in the 1980s to turn former enemies into partners. Over the next decade, Americans and Vietnamese worked together to find remains of soldiers missing from the war, clear unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, and clean up some of the Agent Orange left behind.

  • Chuck Searcy:

    For many of us, being able to come back and do something that's positive and constructive and that is helping with the rebuilding and the reconciliation is very gratifying. And for many of us, it's the closure that's been needed for a long, long time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that closure gave the two countries an opening.

  • Thao Griffiths:

    Once you have a model of working effectively with each other, many other things could become possible. So, that's why I strongly believe it set the foundation and opened so many doors.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thao Griffiths is the former Vietnam country director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. She worked with veterans and the Vietnamese military on projects like de-mining. She says confronting the war's legacies led to people-to-people exchanges.

    She worked with champions of reconciliation, including Senator Patrick Leahy. And she became a Fulbright fellow, introducing Hillary Clinton. Today, the Fulbright program extends to government leadership. Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh is a Fulbright alumnus and met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

  • Narrator:

    Some added punch for Uncle Sam in South Vietnam.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And relations between the militaries has dramatically expanded. A Coast Guard ship the U.S. once used against Vietnam was transferred in 2017 to the Vietnamese navy. Last year, an aircraft carrier docked off the coast for the first time since the war.

  • Thao Griffiths:

    Such a comprehensive engagement that the U.S. is having in Vietnam, not only defense-to-defense, but also diplomatic, economic, education, cultural, people-to-people, it's really a comprehensive relationship that we have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that relationship has helped produce an economic boom. Garco 10 is Northern Vietnam's largest garment company. Textiles have helped make Vietnam Asia's third fastest-growing economy, behind India and China.

    And since a trade embargo was lifted in 1994, the U.S. has become Vietnam's number one export market. Than Duc Viet is Garco 10's deputy general director.

  • Than Duc Viet:

    After embargo lift, the most important thing, like, we're not thinking about the past. We're not thinking about the war anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Garco 10's employees get to stretch twice a day. They also get to own more than half the company. That's a transformation. Like many companies, Garco 10 used to be run by the army, and then the government, but now it's 56 percent private.

    Vietnam still has a communist government. But the economic opening has transformed the country from one of the world's most insular and poor, and transformed its people, too, says member of Parliament and Vietnam Chamber of Commerce President Vu Tien Loc.

  • Vu Tien Loc:

    In wartime, the soldier is the center of society. But now, in peacetime, developing the economy is the priority. That means the entrepreneur is the peacetime soldier, and our young generation would like to be entrepreneurs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There is another communist country that once fought the United States and is now being asked to reconcile, as Pompeo pointed out last July after meeting Vietnamese leaders.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    In light of the once unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today, I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong-un. President Trump believes your country can replicate this path. It's yours if you will seize the moment. The miracle can be yours. It can be your miracle in North Korea as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Vu Tien Loc, who met Presidents Trump and China's Xi Jinping, as well as Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father, believes North Korea and Vietnam can have a shared past and future.

  • Vu Tien Loc:

    The journey of change between the U.S. and Vietnam, from enemies to partnership and friendship, can be a suggestion for the future of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. And we are willing to share our experience with North Korea.

  • Ho Dang Hoa:

    I would like the U.S. to start with having Korean trained in the U.S., like us 25 years ago.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sixty-three-year-old Ho Dang Hoa is a former Vietnamese soldier who won an Emmy for helping find Vietnamese characters for Ken Burns' recent series "The Vietnam War." Here's how he grew up.

  • Ho Dang Hoa:

    We were trained, we were told that Americans were brutal enemy, imperialists, and invaders of our country, and we have to learn how to hate American invaders.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But after the war, he too studied in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar. And he says the U.S. should offer the same opportunity to North Koreans.

  • Ho Dang Hoa:

    You will have the first batch of Korean learning going to the U.S. They will understand about Americans, and they build the bridge between the two nations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During the U.S.' last major offensive around Christmas 1972, Hoa and his family fled Hanoi to escape the bombing by B-52s, like the one that crashed into this lake. The next year, he joined the military unit that targets planes.

    How far have the U.S. and Vietnam come from that moment?

  • Ho Dang Hoa:

    In 1972, nobody thinks that, someday, Vietnam and the U.S. could be friends again, because of the atrocities on both sides committed during the wartime. We soon become very close friends today, very close friends today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A friendship the U.S. would like to create with an even older adversary.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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