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Hither and Yon

Strangely Shifting Alliances: Vietnam Today, North Korea Later?

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
History is full of such twists, turn and reversals. What are we to think of an American four-star general, medals and ribbons dripping from his chest, showing up in Hanoi talking up the idea of the U.S. shipping arms to the regime that dealt the U.S. the worst humiliation in U.S. history?
That’s right, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, marched in review before a Vietnamese honor guard right beside Vietnam’s military chief, Gen. Do Ba Ky. Dempsey graduated from West Point while the Vietnam War was winding down, but luckily he never served in South Vietnam. Thus he harbored no memories of firing at the bad guys from North Vietnam, of seeing South Vietnamese cringing in fear, fleeing for their lives, looking for any way to get out of the country as the Communist forces poured down in 1975.
That’s just as well. The U.S. and Vietnam now seem to need each other against a common foe. China claims the whole South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, taken over by China from the old South Vietnam regime in 1974, and offshore mineral rights that Vietnam says are within its territorial waters. Now Vietnam wants the weapons needed to fend off the Chinese, who supplied North Vietnam with AK47 rifles and AK50 machine guns and B40 rocket-propelled grenades and a lot of other stuff needed to defeat the South Vietnamese in 1975 after the U.S. had withdrawn its troops two years earlier and the U.S. Congress had cut off military aid.
The sight of America’s top general in Hanoi has to evoke strange emotions among hundreds of thousands of aging veterans to whom North Vietnam and Hanoi will always be the enemy. After all the years I spent as a correspondent in Vietnam, writing a couple of books, a number of magazine articles and innumerable newspaper stories, I have conflicting sentiments too.
I still find it hard to believe, going down roads over which the war ebbed and flowed from rice paddies to dense jungle to rubber plantations, that peace prevails even if the Communist regime rules with a heavy hand, stifling criticism or opposition. The sight of the Vietnamese flag — a gold star on a red field — flying from government buildings still seems a little unimaginable. Well, at least Saigon is still called Saigon, even if it’s only the central area of sprawling Ho Chi Minh City, named after the famed North Vietnamese leader whose obituary I wrote for the Washington Star in September 1969.
The example of Vietnam makes you wonder if some day future generations will grow up in a reunified Korea where the excesses of the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang will be remembered dimly only in history books. Can anyone imagine an American general reviewing North Korean troops while calling for arming the North Koreans against the Chinese?
Korea and Vietnam are so different, geographically, culturally, historically and economically, that comparisons are never going to be valid. Still, we have to expect the unexpected in Korea as in Vietnam. If we listed all the possible scenarios, peaceful reunification would have to be one of them. So would a second Korean War, a precursor perhaps to reunification under whichever side came out on top. As in Vietnam, the role of foreign powers would be all important. An expansionist China would not like to see a reunited Korea as an ally of the United States — or even as a “neutral” nation just as friendly to the U.S. as to China or Russia or maybe even Japan as an antidote to China.
Then again, depending on the outcome of the war, perhaps China would not have such influence over the Korean Peninsula. Realistically, though, we may be sure China would want to be the dominant power in a region over which Japan and then the United States have exercised the greatest influence and power for well over a century.
Come to think of it, who in the 1930s would have forecast that the United States would “occupy” Japan after a war in which 36 million people died in Asia, about two-thirds of them Chinese? And who would have predicted the first Korean War, a sequel to World War II and the victory of Mao Zedong’s Red Army in China?
Against that background, maybe the sight of Gen. Dempsey, medals ablaze, resplendent in his beautiful uniform, showing off in Hanoi, is not so shocking. But if Vietnam and China were to go to war again, as they did in early 1979, might U.S. troops go to Vietnam — as allies of the regime that humiliated the U.S. nearly 40 years ago?
If that happens, please remember you read it here first. And if, as is far, far more likely, it doesn’t happen, then forget I ever wrote it.
Journalist Donald Kirk, a weekly columnist at WorldTribune.com, has been covering war and peace in Asia since the 1960s, He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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