North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong made a surprise two-day visit to India on 12-14 April 2015, the first by a foreign minister of that country in 25 years and thus a rare high-level engagement between India and North Korea.
India and North Korea established diplomatic relations in December 1973. The timing and significance of the visit cannot be missed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to make a maiden three-nation visit to China, Mongolia and South Korea in May 2015. For India, this gave a good opportunity to reassess its stand on the on-going conflict between the South and North Koreas.
As scheduled, Yong met with Sushma Swaraj and Vice-President Hamid Ansari. One cannot also miss the timing of the visit as India’s defence minister Manohar Parikkar left on a four-day visit to South Korea on 14 April even when Yong was still in India. It was in March-April 2015, Parikkar had made a trip to Japan, after Modi’s visit to that country in August-September 2014. While in Seoul, Parikkar discussed with his counterpart how to enhance bilateral military ties, including the possibility of increasing exchanges of personnel and joint exercises. India is also keen to partner South Korean companies setting up shops and producing defence-related equipment as a part of its Make in India initiative. These visits demonstrate that each is trying to reach the other and trying to dissect issues that are in larger regional interests. Is North Korea worried that India is beefing up ties with countries with which it has adversarial relations?
What was the purpose of this sudden visit? Yong was local guardian to North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un during his schooling in Switzerland in the 1990s and is among the few leaders to wield influence in the secretive kingdom. Earlier, Yong was ambassador to Switzerland and believed to have been in charge of managing the funds of Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong-Il. As the country’s foreign minister, Yong has remained active and made trips to the UN, Russia, Cuba and Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, from Pyongyang’s perspective, his visit to India assumes significance.
Though India has diplomatic relations with both South and North Korea, the government has maintained a low-key official level engagement with Pyongyang. The Indian mission in Pyongyang functions with skeletal staff and a diplomatic assignment in that country is seen as a punishment posting. In contrast, a posting at the mission in Seoul is seen as a privileged posting. Though Sushma Swaraj responded to Yong’s request for assistance to be considered positively, it is unlikely to ruffle India’s relations with South Korea. South Korea, however, would expect that humanitarian assistance should be conditional to the improvement of human rights in North Korea, for which a UN panel headed by Michael Kirby recently indicted the regime.
It may be recalled that North Korea has been under economic sanctions for the past decade or so since its clandestine nuclear weapons and missile development programs became public. Its subsequent nuclear tests severely impacted its economy and worsened its relations with other countries. The famine of the 1990s caused a debilitating blow to its economy and the country is yet to recover from this shock. North Korea is heavily dependent upon external aid and trade and with sanctions drying up these means, its reliance on China, the only country it can rely, and few others with whom it has diplomatic and friendly relations has only increased. This could be the reason why Yong decided to visit India not only to brief the compulsions for its pursuance of nuclear weapons program but also seek aid and other humanitarian assistance. Yong’s visit to India also provided the latter an opportunity to reassess its relationship with North Korea, which is under heavy economic sanctions from the UN and western countries.
During his meeting with the Indian counterpart, Yong briefed on North Korea’s nuclear program and also sought food and educational aid. Like other countries, India too is concerned with the deteriorating security situation in the Korean peninsula, resulting from North Korea’s nuclear program, as this adversely impacts the robust economic relationship it has built with South Korea, Japan and China. Understandably, therefore, Swaraj conveyed to Yong that maintaining peace in the Korean peninsula is sine qua non for cooperative prosperity among the countries with stakes in the region. Surprisingly, even while Pyongyang tries to reach out to India as demonstrated by Yong’s visit, the KCNA, the official media of North Korea, makes relatively little mention of India, though coverage on the US and China, the two countries with which it has contrasting relationships is more. Yet, owing to historical reasons and India’s role in the Korean War, Pyongyang, like South Korea, places India high in the list of its imports and export partners and therefore looking to broaden its trade horizon.
North Korea, it seems, finds compelling reasons to find new trade partners because of isolation following sanctions it is facing for some time. The recent bonhomie between North Korea and Russia in which the economic content is a major focus could be one such example. This is essential for the regime to survive. Pyongyang does realise that expanding market in Russia and other friendly countries could help in honing the economic potentials of North Korean economy. Pyongyang does realise that in terms of trade export value, India was second only to China as a destination for North Korean goods, especially silver. Imports from India to North Korea shrunk significantly over the last four years. However, trade interactions in other direction increased by a large margin.
According to the ITC Trade Database, exports from North Korea to India recovered from just $137,000 in 2012 to nearly $110 million in 2014. However, there are caveats that point that India may have breached UN luxury goods sanctions in what appear to be numerous exports of precious stones and metals to the North over the last two years.
Even while Sushma Swaraj questioned the clandestine transfer of nuclear and missile technology and expressed concern with Yong, she did not mention Pakistan by name. A statement issued by the external affairs ministry said that “The foreign minister-level talks were held in a frank and friendly atmosphere, where issues of mutual interest including India’s security concerns came up for discussion,” adding that Swaraj “conveyed to her Korean counterpart the significance of peace and stability in the Korean peninsula for India’s Act East policy”. The reference was to tensions in the Korean peninsula between North and South Korea that flare up from time to time and India’s engagements with the countries in the region, including South Korea and Japan. India has strong trade and economic links with both countries. Both North and South Koreas are technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire and no peace treaty was signed.
North Korea’s clandestine links with Pakistan on missile and nuclear technologies during the reign of Benazir Bhutto and the role of A.Q. Khan is well known and India’s concerns with North Korea’s non-proliferation record are therefore legitimate. North Korea’s nuclear tests in the past and the surface-to-air missiles firings into the seas ignoring the concerns of such acts by its neighbours also are disapproved by India. Though these incidents do not directly affect India’s security interests, Pyongyang’s clandestine relations with Pakistan are worrying. This is because both India and Pakistan have fought four wars since 1947, though there is little prospect for this to escalate at a nuclear scale. Both carried out a series of nuclear tests in May 1998.
Unlike North Korea’s immediate neighbours such as South Korea and Japan, India is in an enviable position to play the role of sobering influence to deter Pyongyang from launching in any adventurist activity. When North Korea suffered from natural disasters in the past few years, India extended humanitarian assistance to North Korea. In 2011, India was quick to respond to a food shortage in North Korea by providing $1 million through the World Food Programme. The assistance provided by India comprised consignments of blankets, rice, wheat, babyfood, polythene sheets, etc. In the past, India donated 2,000 MT of white rice in September 2002 and 1,000 MT of rice in July 2004. India also provided 200,000 Dexamethasone 4 mg (i ml injection), besides donating medicines for the victims of the Ryongchon train blast. In January 2006, India again provided 2,000 MT of rice. Even this time, Swaraj assured her counterpart that India would consider Korean request for additional humanitarian aid, and augment foreign aid, especially in the education and culture sectors.
Pyongyang had appreciated India’s timely assistance. Following this, the North Korean foreign minister visited the Indian embassy for the Republic Day function in Pyongyang on 26 January. Though India holds foreign office consultations with North Korea, it has limited leverage with the reclusive country, which counts China as its main ally. Though China is North Korea’s closest ally, relations between the two countries have soured after the assumption of power by Kim Jong-un, while South Korea-China relations have warmed. Yet, North Korea’s relationship with China remains like “lips and teeth” relationships and this cannot be discounted easily.
There are serious strategic considerations for this to undergo dramatic change. This did not deter Swaraj to respond Yong’s request for more humanitarian assistance to consider “positively”. Yong also extended an invitation to Swaraj to visit North Korea at a suitable time. India is on board with the international community that Pyongyang must curb its deep ambitions of becoming a nuclear power and desist conducting more nuclear tests as such acts adversely impacts on the peace and stability in the Korean peninsula. Though the international community has made sincere attempts through the six-party-talks (defunct since 2008) to deter Pyongyang from its nuclear weapons program and imposed tougher sanctions imposed on banking, travel and trade, reflecting the country’s increased international isolation, these measures have little impact on the North Korean regime.
On the other hand, Pyongyang seems to have hardened its position more. At the diplomatic level, India has always supported the six-party talks and peaceful resolution of the dispute in the Korean peninsula.
Sushma Swaraj’s interaction follows a contact between India and North Korea on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, when her predecessor Salman Khurshid had a rare bilateral meeting with then North Korean foreign minister Pak Ui-Chuan at Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, on June 30, 2013.
According to Indian officials, that meeting had been requested by Pyongyang. That time, Khurshid had conveyed India’s concerns over North Korea’s secret military ties with Pakistan and rejected the communist country’s explanation that its nuclear posturing was intended to merely protect itself from US and South Korea.
Suspicious of the US claim to have won China’s support to seek “verifiable denuclearisation” of North Korea, and rejecting Pyongyang’s explanation for muscle-flexing, Khurshid bluntly told his counterpart from Pyongyang that New Delhi would neither budge from its “principled stand” against proliferation, nor buy the excuse the reclusive country cited to justify its nuclear test in February 2013. That time, Khurshid had told journalists after the meeting: “I told him (the North Korean Foreign Minister) that it was important not to get isolated. If you do not get isolated, you will have friends to help you. But if you get isolated, it becomes difficult for even your friends to help you”. India is indeed concerned over purported military and nuclear ties between North Korea and Pakistan and has taken up the issue at higher level whenever possible.
There have been some high level visits from India to North Korea in the past. When Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi visited Pyongyang in September 1998 as then minister of state and information and broadcasting that was the last high-level engagement with North Korea, labelled by the international community as a pariah for its controversial nuclear weapons program. Also, in April 1992 then Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma had visited North Korea.
In a rare political engagement with North Korea, India sent a three-member parliamentary delegation to Pyongyang in July 2013, led by Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M) to participate in the end of the ‘Fatherland Liberation War’ on 27 July that marked the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953. Others in the delegation were BJP MP Tarun Vijay and Congress MP Hamdullah Sayeed.
Though India has kept the channel of communication open, it has always reminded Pyongyang on the futility in its pursuit of nuclear weapons program, which had been “in violation of its international obligations and commitments”. Equally, India has maintained good relations with South Korea. In fact, New Delhi played host to South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye in January 2014 and at that time then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged North Korea to “comply fully with its international obligations, including under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions”. That time, Yechury had observed that “the significance of the visit is that at a time when there is tension between North and South Korea, India is trying to assert its independent role away from the US by sending a delegation to Pyongyang”. Like in the past, even at this time India voiced concerns about North Korea’s alleged proliferation linkages with Pakistan.
As North Korea is trying to reach out to India, India should seize the opportunity to launch a diplomatic offensive and take measures that could help reduce influence of China and bring reconciliation between the two Koreas. That would also help enhance India’s standing as an international power. It may be mentioned that India’s efforts and influence helped the Myanmar government to get out of China’s influence to some extend and subsequent lifting of sanctions, leading to its integration to the international community.
One could expect a similar role for India in the Korean peninsula.
As expected, the South Korean government did not make any comment or issue any statement on Yong’s visit to India as it was purely a bilateral issue. It is possible that Pyongyang is trying to reach out to India to avoid international isolation and also because of its estranged relations with Beijing under Kim Jong-un’s regime.
While India is gracious enough to consider extending humanitarian assistance as requested, it needs to be careful to make it conditional so that the aid and assistance would be meant for the people and MUST not be diverted into the military. If the assistance given by India is misused, India would be indirectly contributing to North Korea’s military build-up and proliferation and have an adverse impact on Asian security environment, including India. India could also possibly persuade Pyongyang to eschew the path of developing weapons of mass destruction and abandon the nuclear path. India also should secure that its assistance helps the regime to be open and motivates for introducing market reforms.
Persuading the regime in Pyongyang to talk to South Korea unconditionally could be a good start. The international community would be too willing to extend all possible help by way of aid, investment and technical cooperation if the regime gives up the nuclear path and embraces market economy. That would be in the interest of the country and its people. The people of North Korea, suffering from oppression for long, deserve to live with dignity.
Prime Minister Modi has already earned accolade for his diplomatic success from his several overseas visits already taken. If he can take some of his ‘charm offensive’ to the Korean peninsula during his forthcoming visits to South Korea and China in May 2015 and facilitate in breaking the ice between the two Koreas, he would have enhanced his standing as a world leader and elevated India’s position as a great power with say in global affairs. The visit is both a challenge and an opportunity. Will Modi seize it?