Vietnam and South Korea become in-laws

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of formal relations between South Korea and Vietnam. The past two and a half decades have seen a substantial increase in the strength of bilateral relations, as well as the creation of a dynamic economic (and increasingly, cultural) partnership. South Korea’s journey from Cold War dictatorship to economic powerhouse is one that resonates with many Vietnamese, as Hanoi continues its economic reforms to turn the country into a regional player.

While Vietnam is increasingly modelling itself more on the Chinese framework (i.e. one party capitalism), South Korea’s journey since the 1950s still allows for much common ground. Mutual wariness about China’s historical and modern presence (Vietnam has fought almost two dozen wars againsts successive Chinese dynasties) also help strengthen ties.

A rocky beginning for future in-laws

That being said, relations between the two countries did not enjoy an auspicious start. Located in opposite ideological camps during the Cold War, Vietnam and South Korea initially faced each other on the battlefield. While North Korea aided North Vietnam in its struggle against the United States and its allies, South Korea sent 50,000 troops to serve alongside the U.S in the conflict, losing 5,100 soldiers in the process. Indeed, South Korea outfitted the third largest fighting force (after South Vietnam and the United States) to battle the North during the war.

 South Korean soliders prepare positions near Tuy Hoa, Vietnam, 1975.

South Korean soliders prepare positions near Tuy Hoa, Vietnam, 1975.

Despite this baptism of fire, ties with Vietnam have improved, mirroring those between Washington and Hanoi. Both countries took advantage of the lifting of the U.S embargo and normalization of relations in the mid 1990s, with bilateral trade exploding from as little as $500 million in 1992 to $45 billion in 2016. This process was further catalysed in recent years by the introduction of the 2015 Vietnam-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. Trade has quadrupled between 2009-2016, with South Korea emerging as Vietnam’s third largest trading partner. South Korea can also boast that it has provided 17.2% of all FDI received by Vietnam since 1988.

Vietnam’s resources and workers has been integrated into the supply chains of thousands of Korean companies, with some 5,000 South Korean firms operating in the country, providing approximately 700,000 jobs to the national economy. These connections are only expanding, as many Korean investors diversify away from traditional manufacturing investments, with increased attention to services and tourism. As a result, bilateral trade is expected to reach $70 billion by 2020. Such integration does have its downsides, as noted by Martin Petch, Moody’s senior credit officer. “Vietnam is the most vulnerable to any disruption to the global supply chain caused by a cessation or weakening of production in South Korea.”

The threat to the South Korean economy posed by Pyongyang’s sabre rattling and potential aggression has far reaching consequences. This puts Vietnam’s communist regime on tense terms with its former Cold War ally, especially as Vietnam’s government has eschewed ideological convictions to pursue economic development.

Korean culture takes Vietnam by storm

An important part of Vietnam’s development plans has been its focus on services, specifically cultural and tourism-related endeavours. Here too one sees the growing links with South Korea, with 234,000 Vietnamese tourists visiting South Korea in the first nine months of 2017 - a 29.2% year-on-year increase compared to 2016. During the same time, 1.71 million Korean tourists visited Vietnam, a whopping 51.2% year-on-year increase versus 2016. While definitely an opportunity, this influx has created some problems, notably a severe shortage of Korean-speaking tour guides: Vietnam only has 150 such guides in the whole country.

These tourism trends were reflected in the organization of a Korean tourism festival in Saigon in mid-September, as well as efforts by the Korean Tourism Organization to provide free ads for tour companies: a Vietnamese-language app has also been launched. Other recent events include the nationwide tour of piano-duo Nguyen Quynh Trang (Vietnam) and Jisoo Kim (South Korea) - an interesting example of efforts to create harmonious relations. South Korea’s soft power is also on display in the growing popularity of Korean television shows and K-pop.

 A Vietnamese of K-Pop group Girls Generation sporting a traditional hat. Reuters / Kham

A Vietnamese of K-Pop group Girls Generation sporting a traditional hat. Reuters / Kham

This has led to the emergence of home-grown K-pop talent in Vietnam. Indeed, the winners of Vietnam’s K-pop Festival have garnered an opportunity to attend the 2017 K-pop World Festival in Changwon. To highlight the extent to which South Korea is promoting such links, judges of the Vietnamese competition included the chief representative of the Korean Tourism Organization, as well as staff from Korea Foreign Affairs and KBS Television.

Of particular interest are female Vietnamese travellers, with Korean tour firms seeking to promote beauty, wellness and shopping (as well as plastic surgery) packages already popular with many other Asian tourists visiting South Korea. Capitalizing on the popularity of K-pop and Korean media in general (and the image it promotes in particular) provides a ready-made cross-promotion for Korean tourism and cosmetics firms.

A marriage of convenience?

This emphasis can have negative consequences, as Korea-fever leaves many young Vietnamese women with superficial, rose-tinted impressions about working and living in Korea. Statements made during the 2017 Ho Chi Minh - Gyeongju World Culture Expo highlight this dynamic, with organizers stating that “[the Expo] will serve as an opportunity for Korea and Vietnam to further improve their cooperative relations to become a family that shares feelings and hearts.”

South Korea has become known as the “in-law country” in Vietnam due to close bilateral ties but also the upswing in Korean-Vietnamese marriages: some 80,000 such partnerships exist. The issue is that many said marriages are orchestrated in record time, usually between Korean bachelors and low-income Vietnamese women. Youn Sim Kim, director of the Korean Centre for United Nations Human Rights Policy - a NGO operating in Vietnam’s southern Can Tho province - laments that “the women don’t have enough information about either their husbands or what migrating and living in Korea would be like.”

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With many Vietnamese brides coming from Can Tho, various local and Korean organizations have emerged to better prepare those seeking to move, as well offering support for disenchanted returnees. Presented with the glamour and romance of Korean media and the fact that South Korea’s GDP per capita is twelve times that of Vietnam, many rural Vietnamese women see such marriages as tickets out of poverty. Many Vietnamese women are marrying rural Korean men, many of whom are unable to find wives locally, as rural Korean women increasingly move to the cities in search of work and urbanite husbands.

Rural trends in Vietnam and Korea are in turn feeding off each other. While many such marriages do endure, the attrition rate is unacceptably high, with around half of such marriages ending in divorce in the short to medium term, leaving many Vietnamese women in dire financial straits far from home. In response, South Korea has tightened visa rules and cracked down on illegal marriage brokers in Vietnam, efforts which have begun to reduce this trend.

There is significant potential for South Korea and Vietnam to forge a lasting partnership, but both sides need to be careful that their relationship does not become simply a marriage of convenience.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.