SKorea, Vietnam presidents to meet after war controversy

19 10 2009

Lee Myung-Bak_Nguyen Minh Trietby Ian Timberlake (AFP, 18 Oct. 2009)

(HANOI) – The leaders of South Korea and Vietnam will meet this week to boost ties and sign a raft of economic deals after a recent hiccup in relations over the Vietnam War, officials said.  President Lee Myung-Bak and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Minh Triet plan to sign a package of deals and upgrade to a “strategic cooperative” relationship, Vietnam’s ambassador to Seoul told Yonhap news agency.

But while noting that relations have warmed quickly since normalisation of ties in 1992, Pham Tien Van asked Seoul not to repeat a recent “mistake” related to the Vietnam War. “If South Korea beautifies its participation in the Vietnam War, it would be an act harming the feelings of Vietnamese people and rubbing salt into their wounds,” he said, according to Yonhap.  South Korea sent 300,000 troops to fight alongside the United States during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975 with the country’s reunification.

South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs said last month it would push for legislation to give economic compensation and other benefits to Vietnam War veterans, saying they “worked for world peace,” Yonhap reported. According to diplomatic sources cited by Yonhap, Vietnam’s uneasiness over the proposed legislation led Seoul’s foreign minister, Yu Myung-Hwan, to make a rushed trip to Hanoi. But the issue has now been resolved, the Vietnamese ambassador told Yonhap.

Leonid Petrov, a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sydney, said although the wording of such legislation may sound offensive to Vietnam he did not think it would lead to lasting damage.  “I believe that this issue can be resolved easily through diplomatic cooperation and economic partnership,” he said. […] The two nations signed a joint declaration two years ago to widen bilateral ties, Petrov said, and South Korea is communist Vietnam’s third-largest foreign investor this year, according to official figures from Hanoi.

Preparations for Lee’s visit came as a group of North Korean asylum seekers remained under a tent in the grounds of the Danish embassy in Hanoi. A Vietnamese diplomatic source said last week that the North Koreans could leave the compound within days, meaning their departure could come while Lee is in Hanoi, but Seoul declined to comment when asked about such a scenario. The nine asylum seekers entered the embassy compound on September 24 hoping to reach South Korea, Kim Sang-Hun, an activist who said his group helped the escapers reach the embassy, told AFP earlier.

Petrov said he was sure the case would be resolved without damaging Vietnam’s bilateral relations with either North or South Korea.  While Vietnam has major business links with the South, it sees poverty-stricken communist North Korea as an ideological ally. Petrov said Vietnam could potentially play a major role in bringing the two Koreas closer, by demonstrating its own example of national unification and reconciliation and by showing the North a good role model for economic reform and “democratisation.”

Vietnam has a booming market economy. It remains a one-party state but its parliament has in recent years become more vocal over the country’s major problems such as corruption. “By building strong political and economic links with South Korea, Vietnam… proves that peace and cooperation between the societies based on seemingly different socio-economic models is possible and beneficial,” Petrov said.

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