Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

India-Republic of Korea: Friction free ties

December 27, 2014

By K.P.Nayar, Consulting Editor, The Telegraph

Doowon Lee, a Professor at the School of Economics at South Korea’s Yonsei University, who has a reputation for thinking out of the box, has done some unusual research on India. His work recently led him to conclude that India’s economy last year was comparable to that of his own country in 1976 in terms of living standards of their respective peoples. The demographic portraits of both countries, a key factor in economic performance too was comparable by this yardstick.

Professor Doowon then calculated the income growth in both countries during a 20-year period. For India, the period that he chose for this part of his research was from 1993 to 2013: the rationale was that India’s economic liberalization was initiated in 1991 and its results began to be felt two years later, from 1993. In South Korea’s case, the country began its current phase of history when it emerged from the ravages of the Korean War in 1953. So he chose 1956 as the base year for this comparison. Professor Doowon discovered that the pattern of income growth was similar in both India and South Korea during the respective two decades.

(Pic: Seminar on ‘India and Korea: New prospects for Bilateral Cooperation’ in New Delhi on 18th December, 2014. Photo courtesy: Facebook page of Embassy of Republic of Korea in New Delhi)With charts, tables, graphs and a power point presentation, Professor Doowon unveiled his remarkable research in New Delhi in the third week of December 2014 before an audience that included South Korea’s Ambassador to India, Joon-gyu Lee, a large number retired Indian Ambassadors who have an active interest in their country’s "Look East” policy, at least one former Governor, academics, analysts and writers with a passion for South East Asia and a host of others.

One of those retired Ambassadors told Professor Doowon that his statistics were fine and proceeded to ask the most relevant question of the entire evening: how long will it take for India to economically catch up with South Korea! The Professor’s answer was that with its present policies and ways of doing business it would take 30 years for India to reach the same level as that of South Korea now. Of course, he had several prescriptions to speed up this catching up process. Among other things, one such prescription was greater investment in tertiary education as South Korea had done, pointing out that India has been investing heavily in higher education and paying less attention to tertiary education, which could bring about mass change.

As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sets out on her trip to Seoul, Professor Doowon’s research is a pointer to how much more India could assimilate from South Korea’s experience of rising from the ashes of a crippling war to become the 12th largest economy by purchasing power parity in the world and one of only two Asian countries (Israel being categorized geographically as Middle East) to be admitted as a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

India’s two-decade-old "Look East” policy has focused heavily on member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Japan. As the Narendra Modi government transforms that policy into an "Act East” effort, laying greater emphasis on working with South Korea could be instructive. The External Affairs Minister’s journey to Seoul could hopefully be the beginning of such a process.(In pic: Prime Minister meets President Park Geun-hye of Republic of Korea on the sidelines of 12th ASEAN-India Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar ​ (November 12, 2014). Photo Courtesy/M. Asokan/Photo Division.)​

India has much more in common with South Korea than is popularly realized or acknowledged: not just in areas that Professor Doowon focused for his research. For example, there is no other country in Asia with which India shares a common history in its current phase of existence. India was partitioned in a gut-wrenching process with attendant consequences when the country became independent. So was Korea at around the same time. The Korean peninsula continues to have two states while the two states that emerged from partition in South Asia later became three, but essentially the history and experiences are identical. By a stretch it could be argued that Vietnam had a similar history, but that is now irrevocably changed with the reunification of Vietnam.

With South Korea, there is a common cultural and religious background that India shares with its people. These are influences which could have a strong bearing on efforts to bring Seoul and New Delhi closer. According to popular legend, an Indian princess from Ayodhya by the name of Huh set sail to the Korean peninsula in 48 A.D. There she met and married King Suro of the Gaya Dynasty.

Korean Buddhism today offers fertile opportunities for employing India’s soft power especially since there has been a resurgence of South Korean efforts to promote religious tourism to India and to understand the roots Buddhism in Bihar and the Terai region of Nepal. This coincides happily with new initiatives in New Delhi to cherish and uphold Indian heritage instead of being apologetic about it or being indifferent to the rich past. Other commonalities in modern times include democracy and free enterprise.

In the early 1990s this writer met several Koreans who spoke fluent Hindi at a National Day reception at the residence of the South Korean Ambassador in Chanakyapuri, the capital’s diplomatic enclave. It was clear that these Koreans were very at home in Delhi: indeed, they knew India better than some of the Indian guests at the Ambassador’s vin d'honneur. This was well before a time when South Korean companies took advantage of India’s economic liberalization and were among the first – along with Singapore – to move into the country in large numbers.

Conversations with these Koreans revealed a chapter in Indo-Korean relations that is still to get the exposure it deserves. What is known, though, is that when there was a stalemate in the Korean War in 1953 along the 38th parallel and armistice negotiations began on the fate of prisoners of war, it was India’s proposals that held sway. India also had a decisive say in the five-nation Repatriation Commission because two Western nations, Canada and Sweden, mostly voted one way and two East European countries, Poland and Czechoslovakia, voted the opposite way. Therefore, India’s vote was usually crucial because that third vote swung the majority among the five members of the Commission.

These Koreans at the National Day reception said Jawaharlal Nehru took a personal interest in their welfare after they chose to leave Korea during the armistice negotiations and opted to live in India, where they set up businesses, brought up their children and built homes. However, their children emigrated to the West when they grew up or went back to Korea which had become an economic power by that time compared to the wasteland that it was after the war. The small refugee community is more or less extinct now.

Once the arrangements were finalized between the Cold War rivals and the United Nations on screening prisoners of war about their future, Nehru agreed to send a 6,000-man "Indian Custodial Force” for this purpose and appointed one of the country’s renowned soldiers, General K.S.Thimayya to head the force. When the war formally ends in Korea and the future of the peninsula is settled once and for all, history will judge if the roots of India’s non-alignment can be traced to General Thimayya’s role as the head of the Indian Custodial Force.

One thing is certain. Korea became the laboratory for testing Nehru’s policy of neutrality which pre-dates non-alignment. Besides, India’s role in the Korean War gave it a voice on the global stage which was way above the country’s military or economic capabilities at that time. It was in Korea that India won its credibility for the first time as an honest broker in international conflict situations.

Any reference to this segment of Indian diplomacy will remain incomplete without mentioning Colonel M.K. Unni Nayar, a bright young journalist who lost his life in the Korean War. Nayar gave up active journalism to become Public Relations Officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington. There, he volunteered for service in Korea and the Indian government selected him to serve as an alternate delegate to the U.N. Commission on Korea. A Gazette Extraordinary dated August 13, 1950 on Nayar’s death acknowledged that "his dispatches from there proved invaluable to the government in forming an appreciation of the Korean situation.” A memorial dedicated to Nayar and others who died in a mine explosion exists in Waegwan in South Korea.

(In pic; Korean war Memorial- Waegwan)

Fast forward to the future, Asia has changed so much in recent years that the certitudes of the past that stood New Delhi in good stead in Korea and elsewhere for decades no longer hold good. Transforming policy that takes into account these changes and thinking big and bold in a new context is the challenge before Sushma Swaraj as she engages her counterpart in Seoul. It is encouraging for both sides that they are capable of advancing the bilateral relationship without India having to give up non-alignment or South Korea having to underplay its alliance with the United States of America.

 



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