Time for India to step up its ties with North Korea

With Kim Jong-Eun coming to power this year, India has a rare diplomatic window where India can step up and effectively engage North Korea.

Indian strategist have always grappled with the idea of countering the string of pearls that China is stringing around India. While a near term strategy involves engaging Indian neighbors and integrating them into the Indian economy and security architecture while weaning them away from China. The long term strategy will have to involve establishing a counterpart of the string of pearls east of China itself. This is where North Korea as the north most pearl in this string comes into play. India has historically kept its ties with North Korea low profile. Initial involvement included India's role in mediating a ceasefire after the Korean war under the UN umbrella and interactions as part of the NAM grouping. Only recently has India increased its official interactions culminating with the visit of the North Korean Foreign minister visiting the Indian embassy on Republic day last year.

Its important to review the external environment surrounding North Korea. The North Korean issue is basically framed around its nuclear weapons ambition. The crippling sanctions regime has also them to export its missile and nuclear technologies to countries like Pakistan and even Myanmar to sustain a cash flow. This directly impacts security in India's neighborhood. It also has a hostile relationship with Japan, South Korea and the US all of which are close partners and potential allies of India. Not to mention that North Korea’s biggest patron is China providing almost 70-80% of its trade and investments.

At the face of it, North Korea is a failing state that is ostracized by the International community. And from the Indian perspective, North Korea is a hostile state that proliferates nuclear and missile technology in the Indian neighborhood apart from being hostile to Indian partners in North East Asia. However, China has increasingly had a tumultuous relationship with North Korea. It has an increasing illegal immigration problem with North Koreans trying to flee the regime. North Korea - being ever conscious of its sovereignty - has arrested Chinese fishermen as well as refused Chinese diktats on missile testing issues. On the other hand, its economic and political dependance restricts it from being to antagonistic to the Chinese. The biggest concern for the North Koreans is for it to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent against the US and its allies and at the same time allow the Kim regime to survive economically.

With Kim Jong-Eun coming to power this year, India has a rare diplomatic window where India can step up and effectively engage North Korea. There are two important reasons for stepping up this engagement.

Firstly, North Korea provides a strategic location right at the border with China. It is also has a declared nuclear weapons capability which something that none of China’s neighbours other than India and Russia have. The well known hawk - Bharat Karnad - recently mentioned at a Heritage Foundation event how India should help Vietnam develop nuclear weapons capability to counter China. While this idea may be fanciful given real nuclear proliferation concerns, North Korea is a country that is already nuclear capable and is blinded to China only because of a hostile external environment it faces with South Korea, Japan and the US trying to restrain its nuclear ambitions. A more autonomous independent North Korea which does not feel threatened by the US and its allies will also wean itself away from China's overbearing interference and make it more challenging for China to dictate and mange its relationship with North Korea.

Secondly, and more importantly, engaging North Korea is essential to block the smuggling routes for nuclear and missile technology proliferation or any potential collaboration on nuclear weapons with Myanmar or Pakistan both which directly affect Indian security concerns. India is seen as a neutral player by North Korea and closer ties with the largest democracy in the world and an important country would be an important incentive for the North Korean regime to take care of Indian concerns regarding proliferation in the Indian neighborhood in return.This could also lead to more important security co-operation ties in the fields of training, non-proliferation and intelligence sharing particularly related to Pakistani and Myanmar nuclear and missile dealings with the eventual goal of blocking or sabotaging it.

To be clear, the enhanced engagement will have to be done in collaboration with the US, Russians, Japanese and South Koreans who would welcome Indian involvement on one hand and China on the other who may try to block it. The US already discusses North Korea as part of its Asia Pacific dialogue with India and the South Koreans and Japanese would also be interested in a fellow democracy taking a keen interest in providing a more neutral back channel for negotiations. India’s involvement as a neutral player or observer in the six party talks could another multilateral engagement that India takes up with collaboration with regional powers. The eventual goal for India would be peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and an emphasis on dialogue rather than coercion and military tactics.

There are already indications that show India taking a renewed interest in North Korea. Under UPA I and II, a regular food aid program has been taking place with most recently a 1 million dollar food aid package being dispatched to North Korea in March last year. We also provides 18-20 technical training seats as well as English language and IT training to military officers from North Korea. On trade as well we have now entered in the top 5 export/import partners although their trade is still heavily dominated by China on all accounts. A boost to this can be provide by possibly a rupee account trade facility as we have for Iran. Joint Ventures with South Korean companies that already trade with North Korea could be good beginning point. Food aid as a humanitarian gesture can play a major role in building time with the North Korean regime and is also the least controversial. Later steps could include involvement in infrastructure and construction projects for North Korea sea ports and airports as well as its agriculture and telecom sector.

In the 1960s, Kissinger held a series of talks with his Chinese counterparts despite China being considered a country ruled by a lunatic under Mao. This paved the way for Nixon going to China and re-calibrating the cold war realities with respect to the Soviet Union. The regime particularly under the new leader Kim Jong-Eun provides an opportunity to build a new partnership. Initially, Indian interests would revolve around stopping North Korea from aiding and abetting Pakistan and Myanmar in their nuclear proliferation and missile testing efforts and eventually allow India to play a stabilizing role in the Korean peninsula and restore a balance by allowing the North Korea regimes to wean themselves away from Chinese over dependence. It will be naive to expect the new regime to suddenly extend an olive branch to the US. But allowing India to engage with North Korea will open possibilities were a more stable relationship can emerge where India can play an independent mediator role and act as a conduit for back channel talks when neither side is agreeable to face to face talks..

India has been rightly pointed out that the sanctions regime whether in Iran or Myanmar has only led to increase in Chinese influence in these countries and hence continued to engage with these countries despite crippling sanctions on them. North Korea is also no exception to this strategy. Eventually it would be in Indian and the International community's interests to have North Korea that can at least feed its people from the humanitarian point of view and is no longer wholly dependent on China. A further objective would be to persuade the North Korean regime to completely cut of its support to Pakistan, Myanmar or any other weapons and technology export for economic reasons. However, it should be clear that resolving the nuclear weapons issue is something that India should not actively involve itself in. India's mediator role should only be restricted to calming tensions in the Korean peninsula and allowing North Korea an opportunity to reach out to the International community through India.

Forty years ago, despite the fact that USSR and China were communist countries, the US was able to persuade China to change sides discretely. There is no reason why India can play a similar role in engaging North Korea if we play our diplomatic cards right despite both being Communist countries.



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