Explained: India-South Korea Relations


In September 2019, India’s Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh visited South Korea in his five-day tour of Northeast Asia.

Historical Background of India-South Korea Relations

  • The cultural relations between India and Korea started way back in the 4th century AD when Buddhism reached Korea from India.
  • The ancient ties between them got momentum during the time of Asoka who patronized Buddhism and sent iron and gold from India to Korea to establish Buddha statues.
  • The medieval period and the era of the colonial empire saw a decline of relations between India and Korea.
  • In 1947, the UN Temporary Commission on Korea was established to hold elections in Korea in 1948 with India as the chairman of the Korean Commission.
  • India spearheaded the ceasefire between North and South Korea in 1953 and it led to the ending of Korean crises. India’s diplomacy was highly appreciated in 1954 Geneva conference.
  • The era of cold war brought an ideological difference when India chose non-alignment whereas South Korea chose an alliance with US by signing a Mutual Defence Treaty.
  • The cultural ties continued to flourish when Kimhae city and Ayodhya were declared as sister cities in 1999.

Diplomatic Relations between India and South Korea

Nuclear Diplomacy

  • In 2011, India and South Korea signed a nuclear deal and it was a boost for India as South Korea is a market leader in build nuclear reactors.
  • India has adopted a wait-and-watch policy over nuclear commerce with the South Korea.
  • Korean nuclear technology is indigenously manufactured and Korea has successfully used nuclear diplomacy in its foreign policy amongst global players.

Strategic Diplomacy

  • In 1999, during the visit of South Korean prime minister, the path to space cooperation was opened and India, through Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launched a Korean satellite Unibyol or KITSAT-3 in the geo-stationary orbit.
  • It was in 2004, the first ever Foreign Policy and Security dialogueenvisaging long-term cooperative partnership was held and matters related to defence and terrorism were discussed.
  • The commitment of India and South Korea for a multi-polar and a democratic Asia strengthened their need to cooperate at the strategic level.
  • The 2005 signing of MoU on defence logistics and supplies had increased the bilateral defence visits.
  • There is a permanent post of a defence attaché in Indian Embassy in Seoul.
  • In 2014, the strategic cooperation and convergence between India and South Korea strengthened with the signing an agreement on the exchange of classified military information.
  • With India’s greater emphasis on security ties with South Korea, seven agreements were signed in 2019 for enhanced cooperation in key areas, including infrastructure development, media, and start-ups, as well as in combating trans-border and international crime.
  • Two significant agreements were signed in 2019 during the visit of Rajnath Sigh to South Korea which aimed at extending logistical support to each other’s navies and deepen defence educational exchanges.
  • In November 2019, the Indian Army inducted the K9 VAJRA-T 155mm/ 52,a tracked self-propelled howitzer, which has its roots in the K9 Thunder, the mainstay of the South Korean Army.

Trade Diplomacy

  • It was in 1988 when India liberalized its economy during Rajiv Gandhi era, which paved the way for signing of Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty (DTAA).
  • In order to boost the bilateral cooperation, the then prime minister of South Korea visited India in 1996 and established a joint commission at the Foreign Ministers level.
  • Since 2001, South Korea has been an importer of services while India has emerged as an exporter of services.
  • India exports mineral fuels, stag and ash, cotton and waxes to South Korea while it mostly imports electronics, nuclear reactors, boilers and iron.
  • joint study group was established in 2006 to enhance economic cooperation and to chalk out the possibility of a future Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which was finally concluded in 2009.
  • In 2005, POSCO steel company concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Odisha for establishing a 12 billion dollar steel plant.
  • Indian firms like Tata group have initiated the acquisition of Korean firms to increase its presence in Korea.
  • In 2016, Korean+ platform was launched by India and South Korea which acts as a platform to boosts representatives from Korean industry and energy ministries.

Significance of South Korea to India

  • The New Southern Policy of South Korea is aimed at elevating Korea’s strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with India to bring relations on par with Korea’s four major diplomatic partners: the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
  • The NSP policy places Southeast Asia and India at the centre of Korea’s foreign policy agenda, so far dominated by the Korean Peninsula and the role of these four major powers.
  • Seoul’s political elite are coming to view India and the ASEAN countries as new economic partners, driven by their need to reduce over-dependence on traditional trade allies like China and the United States.
  • The fact that India has no sensitive issues with South Korea aids the cause of strategic cooperation between the two states.
  • As India does not carry any unknown variables in its market, South Korea finds little risk of economic cooperation with India as compared to China.
  • Bilateral defence industry collaboration with South Korea could help in the development of indigenous capability to fill the vital technology gap.
  • The high-end and sophisticated nature of the South Korean defence electronic capabilities makes Seoul an indispensable defence partner.
  • South Korea could play an important role in containing China’s presence in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by becoming the part of a multilateral coalition.

Challenges in India-South Korea Relations

  • The South Korean firms prefer local investments over FDI domesticallyand therefore making it difficult for India to take Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to South Korea.
  • The direct cooperation and engagement between Indian and South Korean maritime forces remained limited because of the cautious approach of India on this front.
  • There is reluctance from South Korea to partner with India in any initiative in South Asia that challenged other regional powers.
  • In August 2019, a simmering conflict between Japan and South Korea erupted into a full diplomatic crisis, when Japan threatened to slow down exports of materials essential to South Korean industries, which might pose a problem for New Delhi.

India’s Act East Policy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy

  • The policies focus on developing their robust relationship with ASEAN countries and further strengthening India-South Korea relations.
  • South Korea’s presidential committee and NITI Aayog are collaborating in developing a high-level economic dialogue to enhance mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.
  • India and South Korea have set a target of bilateral trade of USD 50 billion by 2030 along with multi-billion dollar deals have also been signed in the areas of defence, steel and nuclear power plants.
  • The Act East policy focuses on promoting economic cooperation, cultural ties and develops a strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels which would eventually provide enhanced connectivity to the states of North Eastern region.
  • Under the Act East Policy (AEP), India values South Korea’s economic capacities as a trade partner, investor, technology transferor, aid donor, and strategic industrial partner.
  • South Korea’s economic relation with India is more oriented to the private sector, with little public or governmental involvement from either side during the Look East Policy (LEP) period and even after the AEP was launched.
  • India believes that South Korea is an important piece of the US-led security alliance system in Northeast Asia, making it another security partner for India in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical framework.
  • India has also demonstrated its interests in cooperating more closely with South Korea at various regional security forums such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Tokyo Defense Forum (TDF), the Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), the Asia Security Summit (ASS), the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue (JIDD), and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Way Forward

  • In order to strengthen their special strategic partnership, both the nations need to undertake 2+2 dialogue at the foreign and defence ministers’ level regularly.
  • As Indian navy is often seen lacking the maritime legs for sustained operations in the Pacific, the maritime partnership with South Korea will help in creating the reach in a theatre of growing strategic importance for India.
  • The two states require working on leveraging their commonalities to expand military exchanges and deepen cooperation.
  • The economic cooperation needs to be strengthened due to on-going trade war between US and China.
  • South Korea’s New Southern Policy is in sync with India’s Act East Policyand a more robust strategic partnership can be achieved if the two countries are able to tap their full potential through these policies.

Source: The Indian Express

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