The India-South Korea relationship remains thin on strategic content | analysis | Hindustan Times
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The India-South Korea relationship remains thin on strategic content

President Moon’s visit to India is taking place at a propitious time, when tensions in the Korean Peninsula are receding and Korean majors are renewing their economic push in the Indo-pacific region.

analysis Updated: Jul 10, 2018 08:47 IST
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is paying his first state visit to India from 8th to 11th July, with a stunning foreign policy success under his belt.(PTI)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is paying his first state visit to India from between July 8 and 11, with a stunning foreign policy success under his belt. For seven decades, the nation had been struggling to find a modus vivendi with its northern neighbour, which had been displaying unremitting hostility, even carrying out terror and military strikes against it. A lifelong proponent of dialogue and détente with North Korea, Moon seems to have pulled off the near impossible, within one year of assuming office in May 2017. Naturally, he enjoys a favourable rating of over 70%.

Son of North Korean migrants, Moon lost the Presidential contest with a small margin to his Conservative rival Park Guen-hye in November 2012. Luck was on his side, though. Ms. Park was felled by a corruption scandal, leading to premature elections. Even though his primary focus was (and is) on DPRK and the four key (K4) stakeholders of the Korean Peninsula — China, the US, Japan and Russia — he unveiled his ‘New Southern Policy’ (NSP) on November 9, to accord priority to relations with ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and India. In a first, Moon also sent his special envoy to India in June 2017 who interalia met PM Modi.

President Moon’s India visit marks the 45th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties. Notwithstanding India dispatching a medical mission during the 1950-53 inter-Korean war, which did commendable work, our ties during the Cold War era remained tepid. The period did see a meteoric rise of South Korea (ROK) from a dirt-poor to an OCED nation. With the advent of democracy in the country in 1987 and initiation of India’s Look (now Act) East Policy (AEP) and economic reforms in 1991, our relationship began to acquire momentum. There is a neat symmetry between AEP and Korea’s NSP.

We concluded a CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) in 2010, a civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2011 and established a defence wing at the Indian Embassy in Seoul in 2012. Korean majors like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia have invested over $5 billion in India and are looking at scaling things up further. Indian FDI has crossed $3 billion in ROK. Bilateral trade between Asia’s 3rd (India) and 4th largest economies, remains below par at around $20 billion, essentially because talks to upgrade CEPA have remained inconclusive, more due to opposition from Indian industry. Given that we mostly export primary products and import electronic and manufactured items, Seoul enjoys a trade surplus.

During PM Modi’s visit to ROK in May 2015, the sides elevated the ties to ‘Special Strategic Partnership’. However, that still remains more aspirational than real, with the strategic content remaining thin. Economic engagement constitutes the core of our relations. Both sides have been trying to expand the scope of bilateral cooperation, with some success. Promising attempts have been made to deepen security and defence exchanges. After a number of near misses, a $650 million K9 VAJRA-T 155 mm self-propelled artillery gun deal, has fructified with ROK. The howitzers, with over 50% indigenous components and among the world’s best, are being inducted by the Indian army.

Our ties are mostly issue-free, but we do have some divergence in outlook. A member of the Coffee-Club, ROK is opposed to an increase in permanent seats in the UN Security Council, purportedly due to fraught relations with Japan. Seoul has an economic over-dependence on Beijing, as also close (even if somewhat testing) political, strategic and cultural ties. Hence, it is very mindful of Chinese sensibilities. Its stance towards terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, similarly needs to be watched.

President Moon’s visit to India is taking place at a propitious time, when tensions in the Korean Peninsula are receding and Korean majors are renewing their economic push in the Indo-Pacific region. Over 700 South Korean companies are already present in India. Their numbers are growing steadily as is the pace of their FDI. Opportunely, Korean SMEs, which are both cash and tech rich, have begun investing in India. The four-day visit could result in movement on CEPA upgradation, forging a partnership to harness gains of fourth industrial revolution, the setting up of joint innovation/technology centres and industrial parks, greater people-to-people exchanges, among others.

Vishnu Prakash is former Indian ambassador to Republic of Korea

The views expressed are personal