- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

The South Korean government is reported to be preparing to upgrade Vietnam's weaponry, including M-113 armored cars and M-16 rifles. The plan reflects Seoul's growing ties with Hanoi and the ongoing expansion of its domestic arms industry.
In the long run, however, the government hopes to leverage its ties with Vietnam to gain Hanoi's help in the Korean reconciliation process.
An official with the South Korean Defense Ministry said early this month that a "domestic defense contractor" and the military would jointly handle a contract to upgrade 200 Vietnamese M-113 armored vehicles, the JoongAng Ilbo daily reported.
Daewoo Heavy Industry was mentioned as a potential contractor for the project during an August 2001 meeting between the South Korean and Vietnamese defense ministers, according to a Yonhap news wire report at the time.
In the longer term, the South Korean government hopes Vietnam can encourage North Korea to come out of its isolation, especially as Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong is expected to visit Pyongyang in May.
Seoul has been struggling to kick-start reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula since it ground to a halt after President George W. Bush took office last year. Seoul, by presenting Vietnam as an example of a closed, socialist nation that has expanded economic ties with the world, hopes to coax North Korea into following a similar pattern and thus re-engage the South in talks.
Even if this fails, South Korea would gain the economic benefits of adding Vietnam to the growing list of customers for its domestic arms industry.
South Korea, one of Vietnam's biggest foreign investors, has accelerated defense contracts with its former ideological opponent during the past few years. South Korea's defense minister in December 2000 paid his first visit to Vietnam since establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992.
Vietnam reciprocated last August when it sent its defense minister to Seoul for the first time. During the latter meeting, the two sides began talks on increased defense cooperation, including armament contracts like the M-113 project and an upgrade of Vietnam's remaining M-16 rifles.
South Korea's defense minister paid another visit to Hanoi last month, which led to the recent unofficial announcement of the upgrade contracts.
The final decision on the projects is expected to be reached at a joint conference in Seoul on defense and logistics in the first half of 2002, according to the Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo.
The South Korean defense sector received a major boost in last July after an agreement with Turkey to provide subsystems for Ankara's new self-propelled howitzer systems. South Korea's Samsung Techwin beat out more established European companies, largely because Seoul attaches few political restrictions to such deals.
But as South Korea tries to bolster defense exports, there is a deeper reason underlying the enhanced ties with Vietnam. Ties between Pyongyang and Hanoi shrank dramatically after Vietnam officially recognized South Korea in 1992. But Pyongyang has recently revived them.
Kim Young Nam, North Korea's de facto head of state, traveled to Hanoi last July in the highest-level such visit since 1965. It was followed in October with a Vietnamese economic mission to Pyongyang, and Hanoi recently announced that its president would likely visit North Korea in May.
Seoul hopes that this trip will restart the inter-Korean dialogue.
Like China, Vietnam can show North Korea how to implement economic reforms without significantly loosening political or social control. In addition, because Vietnam is so far from the Korean peninsula, it has little at stake and thus can be a more "honest broker" between the two Koreas than China or even Russia.
Whether Pyongyang will be listening during the visit remains to be seen.

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