In 1966, Ahn Hak-soo was one of more than 300,000 South Korean soldiers fighting alongside US forces during the Vietnam War when he was captured by the North Vietnamese army and handed over to Hanoi’s key ally, North Korea.
North Korea, having fought the US-backed South to a standstill in another brutal Cold War conflict a decade earlier, used Ahn in propaganda broadcasts, but he was never seen by his family again.
Now, relations between Vietnam, South Korea and the US are cosy and economic ties are crucial. North Korea remains isolated and impoverished.
An upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi represents a new chapter the countries’ complex relations, but is also a painful reminder for some.
“Looking at what is happening in Hanoi now, I really feel the irony of history,” said Ahn’s brother, Ahn Yong-soo.
Vietnam and North Korea were close allies during the Cold War era, sharing similar socialist ideologies, and exchanging military and political support during the Vietnam War.
However, relations have cooled since Vietnam began embracing the West, embarking on a series of political and economic reforms and establishing ties with South Korea in 1992.
Their economic relationship has also deteriorated.
The international community imposed tough sanctions on North Korea following a series of weapons tests and trade between the two countries is “small and inconsistent,” the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
In a further test of relations between the two old comrades, a Vietnamese said that she was coerced by North Korean agents to carry out the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, in Malaysia two years ago.
In rural Bac Giang Province, just outside Hanoi, a fading memorial for 14 North Korean air force personnel killed during the Vietnam War stands as a reminder of Pyongyang’s contribution to the conflict.
The memorial is tended by a North Vietnamese veteran, but seldom visited since the airmen’s remains were repatriated in 2000.
“Even though the state doesn’t provide any support, I still look after the headstones because I also fought in the war,” caretaker Duong Van Dau said.
North Korea sent hundreds of pilots to fly MiG-17s in combat against US aircraft over North Vietnam, Vietnamese and North Korean state media said.
North Korean aircraft shot down 26 US airplanes from 1966 to 1969, a Vietnam People’s Air Force official quoted in the Vietnamese People’s Police’s newspaper said.
“We found them to be very brave. Their national pride was so high,” former Vietnamese deputy minister of defense and former Vietnam War pilot Tran Hanh said. “They feared nothing, even death.”
Teams of North Korean psychological warfare specialists were also sent to help the North Vietnamese conduct propaganda and abduction operations directed against South Korean troops serving in South Vietnam, and Vietnamese guerrilla forces were trained in North Korea, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said.
However, North Korea’s role in the war is now all but forgotten in Vietnam, save for the Bac Giang memorial.
“I have a duty as a citizen to look after this site because it commemorates the fight against America with our North Korean brothers who fought alongside us and sacrificed themselves for our country,” Dau said.
Relations between Vietnam and North Korea took a dark turn in 2017, when North Korean agents used Vietnamese citizen Doan Thi Huong to carry out the assassination of Kim Jong-nam.
Kim Jong-nam was killed when Huong and Indonesian Siti Aisyah smeared the deadly VX nerve agent on his face.
Both women have pleaded not guilty and told police that they thought they were taking part in a hidden camera TV show.
Pyongyang has denied accusations by South Korean and US officials that Kim Jong-un’s regime was behind the killing.
Both women face the death penalty if convicted.
“She called us before Lunar New Year, asking about our health and for us to pray for her so that she can be freed,” Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said.
“I strongly believe that she will return, and that is also the wish of my family. I hope Kim Jong-un will help Huong to return home as soon as possible,” Thanh said.
Some ties between the old socialist allies remain, and Vietnam’s model of doi moi economic and political reforms from the 1980s and 1990s have been touted as a potential model for North Korea to follow if it wants to re-enter the international fold.
There is also some tourism from Vietnam to North Korea.
Nguyen Thuy, a businesswoman from Hanoi, visited North Korea for one week last November.
“It must be one of the most peaceful places in the world, since it hasn’t received much influence from technology,” Thuy said.
There are two North Korean restaurants in Hanoi, and a kindergarten gifted by Pyongyang that opened in 1978 is popular with North Korean diplomatic staff and locals alike.
“Since its establishment, the kindergarten has always maintained a close relationship with the North Korean Embassy and with the Vietnam-DPRK Friendship Association,” Ngo Thi Minh Ha, head of the Vietnam-DPRK Kindergarten, said as he stood beneath a painting of Kim Il-sung and Ho Chi Minh, the two nations’ founding presidents, shaking hands.
The school has opened two new classrooms named after Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea also runs a friendship kindergarten in Pyongyang that has a classroom named after Ho Chi Minh.
“We totally believe [that North Korea will further develop economically], because North Korean people are creative, strong-minded and determined,” Ha said. “We believe our North Korean friends will have their own breakthrough doi moi style reforms in the future.”
Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen, Khanh Vu, Thinh Nguyen and Rozanna Latiff
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