It’s not the most obvious international friendship. On one side is the world’s largest democracy, with its riotous collection of battling political parties and a freewheeling media with thousands of newspapers, TV stations and websites. On the other is a deeply isolated nation, a country with no political opposition and a media that does not question the long-ruling family. Access to the Internet, except for a handful of government-approved websites, is restricted to a tiny elite.
But ties are warming between New Delhi and Pyongyang, with mineral-hungry India looking to boost trade while North Korea, facing sometimes-rocky relations with China, searches for new friends.
“We feel that there should not be the usual old hurdles and suspicion,” Kiren Rijiju, a top official in India’s home ministry told The Hindu newspaper after a recent meeting with North Korea’s ambassador. “We have been discussing inside the government ways and means of upgrading bilateral ties.”
The goodwill began earlier this year, when North Korea dispatched Foreign Minster Ri Su Yong on a three-day trip to India, just a few weeks before Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Seoul for meetings with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
While Pyongyang and New Delhi have long had diplomatic relations, things cooled a couple decades ago as India blamed North Korea for selling nuclear technology to its archrival, Pakistan, and North Korea grew upset that India was growing close to South Korea.
But times change.
North Korea, for its part, has had to accept South Korea’s economic dominance, and how even a longtime ally like China is anxious to increase trade with Seoul.
India, meanwhile, has a growing economy with an increasingly voracious hunger for raw materials.
“There is always a resource crunch that pushes countries to look for new friends and new allies,” said Vyjayanti Raghavan, a professor at the Centre for Korean Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
While the diplomatic moves would not be newsworthy for most countries, and have yet to result in a concrete agreement, they are significant for North Korea, whose foreign relations are largely limited to a handful of other countries.
North Korea, Raghavan said, had long been anxious to repair ties with India.
“But North Korea had nothing much to offer to India,” she said. “Now, India can benefit from the relationship.”
North Korea’s export economy is highly dependent on raw materials, mostly coal and iron ore, though it is also increasingly seen as a potential major source of the rare earth minerals used in high-tech products.
Looking for new alliances
Pyongyang is also anxious to forge new alliances.
China remains North Korea’s closest ally, and is by far its largest trade partner, but ties are not as warm as they once were.
Beijing reacted angrily to North Korea’s last nuclear test, in 2013. Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, has kept his distance from China after taking power in 2011, following his father’s death. Apparently concerned about the growth of Beijing’s influence. Kim has not traveled China, where his father was a regular visitor, and has held few talks with top Chinese officials. North Korea has also ratcheted up ties with Russia as relations with Beijing have cooled.
New Delhi may also see the renewed North Korean ties as a way to make quiet advances into a country long seen as part of China’s sphere of influence. Chinese-Indian relations are delicate and often contradictory, with mutual distrust — and occasional squabbling over their long shared border — mixing with a desire to increase trade and avoid open confrontation.
India has watched warily as China has made inroads across the Indian Ocean, where New Delhi’s traditional dominance has declined as a result of billions of dollars in Chinese aid and construction projects.
Simply the choice of Rijiju to meet with North Korean diplomats could have been intended to make a point, since he is from Arunachal Pradesh, a state that Beijing has long insisted is actually Chinese territory.
And what will India’s other allies say about improved ties with North Korea?
That probably doesn’t matter. While North Korea remains economically isolated from much of the world, treated as a pariah by Washington and much of the West, India has long charted its own foreign policy course. For instance, even as India became increasingly close in recent years to the U.S., New Delhi remained friendly with such countries as Iran and Syria.
“Why shouldn’t India have relations with North Korea?” demanded Hamdullah Saeed, an opposition politician who visited North Korea as part of a parliamentary delegation in 2013. “India can have ties with who it wants.”