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When South Korean President Moon Jae-In visited India in July this year, it once again brought out the deep cultural and economic connection between the two countries. The cultural bond, of course, goes much further back in time. Princess Suriratna, a legendary Princess of Ayodhya now in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh went to Korea in AD 48 and married King Kim-Suro and became Queen Hur Hwang-ok. A large number of Koreans trace their ancestry to this legendary princess. In the 20th century, poet Rabindranath Tagore described Korea, then without North-South division, as the “Lamp of the East” when the country was mired in the darkness of poverty.
It was only in 1990s that the light spread by that Lamp reached the Indian economy when investments and technology from South Korea began flowing as India embarked on its journey of reforms and liberalization following the end of the Cold War era. As a result, electrical gadgets manufacturers Samsung and LG and carmakers Hyundai and Daewoo became a household name in almost every Indian middle class family in no time.
Coming out of the shadows of acute poverty in 1960s and riding on rapid economic and technological development, South Korea became one of North East Asia’s economic miracles after Japan and joined the high table of advanced countries in 1996. As India launched its Look East policy of outreach to South East Asia and East Asia in 1991 in a changed international landscape, India-South Korea relations began looking up. There is now a fine alignment between India’s Act East policy in which South Korea is an indispensable partner and President Moon’s New Southern Policy in which India occupies a key place.
As South Korean and Indian companies invested billions of dollars in each other’s country, it was during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Seoul in 2015 that the two countries scaled up the bilateral relations to special strategic partnership. It is not just South Korea’s family-run behemoths like Samsung and LG which are becoming increasingly deeply invested in India but also many South Korean firms with financial and technological muscles which have started putting their money in India.
President Moon’s visit resulted in a forward movement on the much-anticipated upgraded Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement when the two countries signed a joint statement on early harvest package to facilitate the ongoing negotiations on upgrading the CEPA by identifying key areas for trade liberalization including export of shrimp, molluscs and processed fish from India. This was an important takeaway from Moon’s visit. Another MoU inked was for cooperation in development of cutting edge technologies for commercialization to reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution with the thrust areas being Internet of Things (IOT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, Smart Factory, Electric Vehicle, Advance Materials and affordable healthcare for the elderly and the disabled. All this is a powerful testimony to the substantive nature of the economic underpinning of India-South Korea economic engagement.
But there is a big divergence between India’s Act East and Moon’s New Southern Policy. While New Delhi’s approach is mainly driven by strategic considerations as part of its new indo-Pacific vision in the backdrop of the rise of China as an economic and military power, Seoul outreach is propelled entirely by economic and transactional considerations. It is for this reason that the strategic part of India-South Korea relations remains very thin in content. Barring a 650-million dollar deal to get artillery guns for India, there is not anything else to write home about. India and South Korea also inked a civil nuclear deal which remains non-operational.
Despite enjoying the American security cover for seven decades and having allowed Washington to deploy Thaad missiles as part of an anti-missile defensive shield on its territory much to the annoyance of China, South Korea has over the years built robust economic ties with China which is a major market for South Korean finished goods. No wonder, Seoul takes care not to ruffle China much. However, President Moon also knows the pitfalls of being over-dependent on China for economic relations and hence his New Southern Policy which basically means diversification of markets for South Korean products in Japan, Taiwan, South East Asia and further west to South Asia.
South Korea can also help India play a key role in ensuring peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and nothing could be a better time for this than the present scenario when the US and North Korea have set up contacts on dismantling of the North’s controversial nuclear weapons programme. With its policy of neutrality and constructive contribution towards both the Koreas, experts from India and South Korea agree New Delhi can assist Seoul to reach out to Pyongyang for promoting the cause of unification of the divided Koreas.
India has maintained a diplomatic mission in North Korea even when the latter was a global pariah. A united Korea will act as a harbinger of peace not only in the region but across the world. Even after becoming the members of the United Nations in 1991 as two sovereign countries, North and South Korea agreed not to attack each other and strive towards re-unification. But there is a difference of approaches between New Delhi and Seoul on this too. While Seoul’s call for de-nuclearization of the Korean region is prompted by its objective to prod North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and help restore balance of power in the region, India’s aim is to bring to public how Pakistani nuclear A Q Khan had clandestinely helped North Korea acquire nuclear missiles. But the difference is not something that cannot be reconciled.

PALLAB BHATTACHARYA