India’s Stakes In The Korean Peninsula – OpEd


Of late the Korean Peninsula has been a source of good news. The ensuing detente between the US and North Korea culminating in the historic Singapore summit last month, which wouldn’t have materialized without the astute Statesmanship of the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The South Korean national football team bowing out of the FIFA World Cup on a high, by knocking out the four time world champions Germany (2-0)! If only outcomes of diplomacy were as simple as that of football or any other sports for that matter. There is still some palpable unease as to whether North Korea can or will uphold its commitment to denuclearize, perhaps only time will tell.

India-North Korea ties:

India is one of the very few nations that has strong economic linkages with both the Koreas in varying capacities. After China, India is the second biggest trade partner of North Korea [The bilateral trade between India and North Korea declined to USD 133.43 million in 2016-17 from USD 198.78 million in the previous financial year to that as India had earlier this year imposed trade restrictions on North Korea which were in line with restrictions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)]. In May this year, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, VK Singh visited Pyongyang and held meetings with several top-level North Korean ministers and government officials. It was the first visit by a senior Indian official to North Korea in almost 20 years, although the two countries have maintained backchannel diplomatic communication for decades. Singh’s two-day visit was also a symbolic commemoration of the 45-year-long diplomatic relations between India and North Korea. India has also helped North Korea in its times of distress during famines by contributing thousands of tonnes of food grains. India has stepped up its focus on East Asia as well as the ASEAN region and North Korea could become a welcome addition as an emerging market with its untapped natural resources and unexplored markets for India’s expanding export-oriented industries.

India’s relationship with North Korea has however been affected by North Korean relations with Pakistan especially due to its help for Pakistan’s nuclear missile programme. In 2004, the “founder” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb A Q Khan confessed to selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran. Without naming any country, North Korea assured the touring Indian minister that “as a friendly country DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never allow any action that would create concerns for India’s security.”

Could deposits of rare earth metals be North Korea’s answer to its economic woes?

Under the reclusive nation’s mostly mountainous surface lie vast mineral reserves, which include iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone, molybdenum, graphite, and more than 200 kinds of minerals. And the icing on the cake is the presence of large amounts of rare earth metals. Their uses vary greatly from magnets to speakers and camera lenses to the materials used in nuclear reactors and MRI scanners.

Estimates as to the value of the nation’s mineral resources have varied greatly over the years, thanks to the added difficulty of secrecy and lack of access. According to a recent and a more conservative estimate by The Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, a state-run research institute of South Korea had pegged the total value of the mineral reserves that North Korea is sitting on is estimated to be around 3,000 trillion won (USD 2.7 trillion).

India-South Korea ties:

During the height of the Korean War, India had dispatched its 60th Indian Field Ambulance Unit, a unit of the Indian Airborne Division, which consisted of 346 men including 14 doctors. It was a mobile army surgical hospital that treated both soldiers and civilians. South Koreans still admire and appreciate India’s gesture during the Korean War. With last month’s Singapore Summit, Rabindranath Tagore’s poem that Korea will be the lamp bearer for the illumination of Asia couldn’t have been more prophetic. Even more interesting is the fact that both the nations share their Independence Day on the 15th of August. South Korea is an economic powerhouse when it comes to consumer electronic goods i.e. white goods and is home to some of the world’s best automobile manufacturers, not to mention its impressive ship building prowess, all of which that has made the nation which is half the size of Gujarat, one of the world’s most prosperous countries. A highly developed and industrialized South Korea towers over its estranged and impoverished Northern neighbour.

With an increasingly volatile geo-political landscape and the need for strategic and diplomatic realignment of relations between countries caught in the Sino-US tug of war in the Indo-Pacific, India and South Korea will look to deepen their strategic engagements beyond the scope of economics. It is worth recalling the deftness that South Korea showed with regards to respecting India’s territorial integrity. Last November, the South Korean Vice Minister for foreign affairs Cho Hyun had emphatically stated that the South Korean government had given “enough warning” to companies that had shown interest in investing in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to refrain from doing so. “South Korea fully understands India’s sensitivity.” The issue of South Korean companies’ interests came up after Pakistan tried to get investment in energy and infrastructure projects in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Last month Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, Enna Park said that during the July summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two leaders will link their own initiatives -President Moon’s New Southern Policy and PM Modi’s Act East Policy.

Asked what role did Seoul see for India in this bid for lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula, she said, India’s role is important, because “we seek full support” from whole international community, including India. “India, as the largest democracy, plays quite an influential role in forming international opinion. And, if international opinion supports peace initiative of South Korea, it will back up our initiative very effectively. “And, so we want India to continue to persuade North Korea to recalculate its strategy to make a decision to change its course to denuclearisation.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, will be in India for a four-day state visit starting July 8. The marriage between South Korea’s ‘New Southern’ policy and India’s ‘Act East’ policy will form the basis of bilateral interactions. The alignment of the two policies are meant to enhance robust cooperation in the field of defence and security architecture in the South Asia and ASEAN region which has seen frequent frictions due to growing Chinese influence and interest in these regions. The foundation of the rapid rise of the Indo-South Korean ties was laid by the then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s 2004 visit to India which resulted in the establishment of the “Long-term Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity,” which paved the way for the start of bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.

This relationship was elevated to the level of Strategic Partnership when President Lee Myung-bak paid a historic visit to India in January 2010 as Chief Guest of the Republic Day celebration. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed in 2009 was also implemented and entered into force from January 2010, which provided greater impetus to the economic aspect of the bilateral ties. July 2011 witnessed the culmination of cooperation on energy security with the signing of a civil nuclear pact during the then President Pratibha Patil’s visit to South Korea.

The bilateral ties were further enhanced during PM Modi’s 2015 visit to South Korea when both countries elevated bilateral ties to a “Special Strategic Partnership,” and the Korean government agreed to provide $10 billion to support India’s priority infrastructure sectors. The two countries are expected to forge closer political and defense ties in light of current geo-political scenario. The two sides are also expected to work on the details of South Korea’s proposed $10 billion assistance towards the development of India’s infrastructure. They are also expected to reach an early harvest agreement on upgrading the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), and to enhance cooperation in various areas, from technology and cyber security to tourism and culture.

Modi will reiterate his stand which he had made earlier this February at the India-Korea Business Summit, for South Korea to bring in more foreign investment and provide technical cooperation, especially in large-scale infrastructure projects and heavy industries such as defense and shipbuilding. The economic partnership has proven to be a boon for both the countries and now the time is ripe to take it to the next level by making it truly comprehensive which is in sync with the dynamic global environment, may be this summit will be the precursor for establishing such a robust partnership.

*Saurabh Dubey is a Defence and Strategic Analyst. This article was also published at Indian Defense News.

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