The Diverging Fates of Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea

Amid the anniversaries of the 60 years since the start of the Cuban revolution and the signing of Korean truce last week you could have forgiven yourself for, upon recent revelations relating to the find of missile parts on a North Korean Ship, that history was repeating itself. Only this time it is perhaps more appropriate to call it the mini Korean missile crisis.

Reflecting on the various fates of past or current communist nations and others such as Vietnam amid these two anniversaries has led to ask some questions. For example, if Cuba had suffered the same intensity of bombing as North Korea endured by the UN would the situation in these two countries have been more similar? One can point to the impact the Vietnam War had on Vietnam and the fact that McDonald’s, a fitting symbol of Capitalism, is opening its first outlet there in 2014 and make an argument against. Today Vietnam is keen to attract foreign investors in addition to KFC, Starbucks and Subway. All three already have a current presence here. Brands like these are popular with its youthful population whose experience with the conflict was not as direct as their parents. In North Korea however the memory of devastating air raids by UN forces is an enduring propaganda tool for Kim Jong-Un’s regime to continue it’s isolationist policies.


A Starbucks store in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

Yet one can also argue that, compared to conventional weapons used by the UN effort in North Korea, employment of chemical weapons such as Agent Orange by the United States during the Vietnam war has had significant long-term effects. This is due to consequent dioxin exposure that can lead to illnesses such as birth defects and cancer. While there have been limited efforts to deal with this legacy, such as those to safely remove contaminated soil from a former major US army base at Na Dang airport, to this day the US still denies it is responsible for the effects of Agent Orange.

In Cuba meanwhile they are looking to the future with, perhaps, a little more positivity. Indeed the statement by Raul Castro that “The historic generation is giving way to the new one, with tranquillity and serene confidence, based on the preparation and competence to keep the flags of the revolution and socialism flying high,” on Cuba’s revolution anniversary is at odds with North Korea’s own anniversary parade of antiquated weapons. Economic reforms in Cuba, similar to those in China have contributed to a substantial emergence of private industry. Like Vietnam’s own implementation in 1986 of what is referred to as the Do Moi reforms, it comes from a realisation that its highly bureaucratic and state centred economic system was no longer able to meet the essential needs of its people, especially when they both could no longer turn to the USSR for support. Today in Cuba, though, as this Reuter’s article claims there is a general lack of opportunities due to a stagnating economy, despite reforms. This particularly impacts the young. Ulisses Guilarte, head of the party in Artemisa province reportedly told Reuters “It is clear the economic situation is difficult, undoubtedly. The young people view their aspirations as still distant,”. Despite this element of capitalism, however, security apparatus to strictly control political dissent is still maintained in Cuba and Vietnam as in China. In Cuba for example Human Rights Watch has repeatedly highlighted measures such as short-term detentions, beatings, travel restrictions and forced exile.

What the find of missiles parts in a North Korean freighter tells us is the importance of acquiring nuclear weapon capability to what many academics refer to as North Korea’s Juche philosophy. This may also explain why the regime’s has so ardently remained tied to its Marxist inspired principles for so long when compared to other small countries like Vietnam and Cuba. The origins of this philosophy has its roots in a centuries-old tradition which drew inspiration from Confucian ideas. These dated back to the original state philosophy of independence espoused by ancient Korean rulers. North Korea application of this in a contemporary political context draws comparisons with Adolf Hitler’s own policy of Lebensraum. Like Lebensraum in Nazi-era Germany, it is a critical part of North Korea’s national policy, which priorities self-reliance above all else. Its three main aspects are Chaju (political independence), Charip (economic dependence) and Chawi (military independence). To partly understand this context it is important to that North Korea emerged after the humiliating occupation by the Japanese that preceded the influence of USSR after Japan’s defeat in WW2. In constructing the socialist revolution in North Korea, Kin Il Sung warned that the North Koreans must “…resolutely repudiate the tendency to swallow things of others undigested or imitate them mechanically”. Such a philosophy, when applied in the realties of today’s globalised world, is at the expense of the very lives of North Korea’s people.

Due to economic and political problems that North Korea faced in the wake of the USSR’s collapse and the death of its then new leader, KIm Jong-Il, it responded by emphasising the Chawi aspect through a military first policy. The attempt to develop nuclear weapons is therefore one way to maintain political legitimacy in the eyes of the people in place of compromised economic dependence in the form of international aid. It should be noted that Vietnam also has a sense of self reliance but have used economic reform rather than a military first policy in an attempt to ensure the communist party’s survival.

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