o keen observers, Vietnam has all characteristics of a typical police state: its citizens’ daily life is closely monitored by the government, the security apparatus is exceptionally effective in curbing dissent and suppressing protests, the country’s best journalists and writers are either censored or imprisoned, and the police remain under the absolute control of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party.
The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) controls the police and security forces and has a far-reaching influence on Vietnam’s political system. An article published in The Vietnamese Magazine last September shed light on the rise of securocracy in the government, where former security officials dominate key governance positions, and how this worrisome fact might result in even more severe consequences in the future.
Police brutality and rampant corruption are among the thorny issues surrounding the security apparatus in Vietnam. However, a historical aspect of the development of the Vietnamese police is often forgotten: the assistance from the infamous East German Ministry of State Security, also known as “Stasi,” to North Vietnam, the socialist state established following the French defeat during the Cold War period from the early 1950s to its final days in 1989.
The “Stasi-like” Vietnamese police system is believed to have contributed to the victory of the Communist forces in the Vietnam War. And after the reunification of Vietnam, the police also became an effective tool in shielding the Party from potential threats during the open-door era.
The Stasi’s role in helping the Vietnamese MPS construct its security and intelligence apparatus can be found in a research paper titled “Fraternal Support: The East German ‘Stasi’ and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War” by Martin Grossheim, an associate professor at Seoul National University.
Enforcing an effective police force
Grossheim builds his research upon a previous study by Christopher Goscha, a historian, who argues that Vietnamese security and intelligence services were “heavily involved in building, protecting, and expanding the Vietnamese state, armed forces, and communist power.”
Tracing back to its historical roots, the MPS originated from a handful of armed militias founded by Communist leader Ho Chi Minh after Viet Minh troops seized power from the Emperor Bao Dai government in the 1945 August Revolution. The issuance of Decree 23 consolidated these militias into a single security force in 1946.
The leadership in Hanoi at the time needed to resolve widespread social unrest and discontent in the countryside due to its failed land reform campaign. Although the Party survived both crises, its leadership realized that the formation of an effective police force was crucial to the survival of the revolutionary government.
In February 1953, Ho Chi Minh enacted Decree 141, which upgraded state security into the Ministry of Public Security, with the mandate of “fighting against spies and reactionaries in the country,” “protecting the borders,” and “fighting against foreign intelligence services and spies.”
Hanoi issued other decrees and ordinances in the early 1960s, granting the MPS more power to assert total control over North Vietnamese society.
In June 1961, the Standing Committee of the DRV issued Resolution No. 48 on the reeducation of “counterrevolutionary elements and professional hooligans,” referring to those considered potential threats to the regime.
Decree 40-NQ/TW, issued in January 1962, classified new elements, including South Vietnamese agents, Catholics, and officials working for the French colonial administration in North Vietnam’s urban areas, as “counterrevolutionaries.”
After the decrees were enforced, approximately 4,000 people working for the colonial administration and the Bao Dai government in Hanoi, Hai Phong, and other North Vietnamese cities were sent to reeducation camps in remote northern regions. Between 1961 and 1965, the MPS sent a total of 11,365 individuals who were considered “dangerous to [North Vietnam’s] security and social order” to collective reeducation camps, according to its publications.
Besides oppressing real and imagined rivals, Vietnamese police sought to maintain public order and control aspects of normal citizens’ daily life. Decree 982, later clarified by Ordinance 34 in 1962, designated the People’s Police to manage residential registration, transportation, the printing industry, and even the manufacture, repair, and sales of telecommunication equipment such as radios.
The first contacts between North Vietnam and the East German Ministry of Security were recorded in 1957 when the MPS sent a request to the Embassy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in Hanoi asking for the supply of technical equipment, including tape recorders and cameras. Tran Quoc Hoan, the first minister of the MPS, visited the GDR for the first time in 1960, but the details of his trip remain unknown.
However, the cooperation between North Vietnam’s MPS and the Stasi did not gain momentum until 1965. As the Vietnam War escalated with the arrival of the U.S. troops in South Vietnam in 1965, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam needed sophisticated weaponry and modern intelligence equipment to enhance its technological capacity and defend its national security.
After that, Hanoi increased its reliance on the GDR for technical assistance, which resulted from the declining relationship between North Vietnam and the Soviet Union between 1963 and 1964. The militant course towards absolute reunification proposed by Le Duan, the first secretary of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, conflicted with Moscow’s favored concept of peaceful coexistence with South Vietnam.
Nguyen Minh Tien, head of the technical department of the MPS, became the primary contact person between the Stasi and the North Vietnamese security apparatus in the following years. In December 1965, a delegation led by Tien arrived in East Berlin, marking the reestablishment of formal links between the police forces of the two Communist brothers.
Tien also came to the GDR with a detailed list of requests for Erich Mielke, head of the East German Ministry of State Security, asking the Stasi to provide the North Vietnamese MPS with technical training, expertise, and the necessary equipment to set up an intelligence operations sector. The Stasi was willing to provide their Vietnamese comrades with considerable technical aid and espionage devices, dubbed “solidarity shipments” by the GDR government.
The first training courses conducted by the Stasi for high-ranking North Vietnamese security officials took place in November 1966 until April 1967, after public security minister Tran Quoc Hoa and Mielke met for the first time in September 1966. The skills taught in these courses included intelligence gathering, postal controls, investigating written correspondence, producing invisible ink for confidential writing, and analyzing and fabricating documents.
One of their first achievements, with the help of East German training and technology, was the successful fabrication of a new identity card called “Green Dragon,” provided by the U.S. government to South Vietnam in 1967. These ID cards were issued to South Vietnamese citizens.
The “Green Dragon” card was intended to help the Saigon authorities track down North Vietnamese agents and members of the National Liberation Front clandestinely operating in South Vietnam at the time. This new type of ID was very sophisticated and equipped with modern technical features, which made it difficult to be replicated.
But in 1972, these IDs were successfully duplicated by the Professional Documents Office in Hanoi, whose staff received training from the Stasi. The fake “Green Dragon” IDs were then provided to high-level North Vietnamese cadres carrying out operational work in the south.
In addition to assisting revolutionary agents in South Vietnam, the MPS depended on the GDR security apparatus to set up a mass surveillance system, including establishing the Internal Security Department, to gain control over the North Vietnamese population and its internal situation in the 1960s. Hanoi’s request for Stasi support came as the leadership in North Vietnam at the time, led by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, cracked down on inner-Party critics during its anti-revisionist campaign, with the arrests of hundreds of Party cadres and intellectuals.
North Vietnam’s security apparatus also utilized the Stasi’s notorious surveillance model of using informants to spy on and target suspected individuals and high-risk groups. Tran Quoc Hoan, the MPS minister, confirmed the existence of such informants and locally recruited agents in a speech in 1967, in which he emphasized their importance in “uncovering and combating all types of counterrevolutionary targets, especially spies who conduct secret operations.”
When the war ended in 1975, and after Vietnam was unified into one country in 1976, the GDR Ministry of State Security provided its Vietnamese counterpart with substantial equipment and training to solidify Hanoi’s authority and stabilize the chaotic situation in South Vietnam at the time.
The security ties between Vietnam and East Germany were upgraded to a more formal level in October 1980 with the signing of an official treaty of cooperation, in which the two regimes agreed to exchange information and counterintelligence gathering efforts of Western countries. The East German security ministry continued to provide aid and collaborate with the Vietnamese public security ministry until the Berlin Wall collapsed in November 1989, which led to the reunification of Germany and the disbanding of the GDR’s infamous police force in 1990.
A lasting legacy
Grossheim concluded in his research paper that assistance from the Stasi since the end of 1965 was instrumental to the modernization of North Vietnamese security forces, despite a certain level of mistrust in the relationship between North Vietnam and East Germany at the end of the 1960s.
The Vietnamese public security ministry’s effectiveness in vanquishing dissent and its ability to exert absolute control over Vietnamese society today was made possible with the technical aid and training of the GDR.
With its powerful institutions, a substantial annual budget funded by Vietnamese taxpayers, and pervasive influence within the country’s governance system, the MPS has dominated Vietnam’s political landscape.
The Communist Party’s latest crackdown on registered NGO leaders in Vietnam in 2022, with the help of the mighty security force, is an example of that domination. Understanding the historic links forged between the notorious Stasi and modern-day MPS is vital for researchers studying Vietnamese politics and for future journalists, human rights defenders, and social activists in Vietnam.◉
This article was originally published by The Vietnamese Magazine. Republished with permission.