India and South Korea consolidated their deepening relations with a vision document and a clutch of agreements during South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to India. Moon visited India shortly after his triumph in opening up ties with North Korea through a successful summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom. Following his historic initiative on North Korea, Moon has moved on to his New Southern Policy (NSP) that aims to diversify Seoul’s relations beyond its traditional partners.
The Korean policy seeks to expand its engagement with countries in the wider neighbourhood, including Asean and India. Moon’s New Southern Policy meets up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revised Act East policy. In their vision document for future partnership for peace and prosperity, India described Republic of Korea as an indispensible partner in its Act East policy while South Korea termed India as a pillar of its Southern policy. Moon reiterated his commitment to raising Korea’s relations with India to the level of its ties with the four major powers around the Korean peninsula: China, the US, Russia and Japan.
The South Korean president’s current tour to India and Singapore gives a greater thrust to strengthening ties with Asean and India. Asean is now South Korea’s second largest trading partner while Seoul views India’s growing economy as an attractive market and investment destination. The NSP aims to diversify and widen South Korea’s economic and political ties with other regional countries for a more balanced foreign, diplomatic engagement. In the process it would help reduce Seoul’s high dependence on the US and China, especially during the era of uncertain global political trends.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner but Seoul is wary of Beijing’s aggressive policy. Beijing had taken umbrage at the deployment of the American THAAD anti-missile system and had retaliated with restricting imports from South Korea. The Chinese action had a sharp impact on the export-dependent South Korean economy. US President Donald Trump’s unsettling policies and trade tussle with China also make it necessary to seek out new markets.
India and South Korea ties have gathered momentum in the past decade, since South Korean President Lee Myung Bak was chief guest at the Republic Day celebration in 2010. The two countries elevated their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership in 2010 and concluded a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement in 2011 when Seoul offered its nuclear technology to India. The implementation of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2011 saw a spurt in bilateral trade, reaching $20 billion in two years. However, trade declined over the next few years till it went up in 2017 to $20 billion again. During this period India’s trade deficit with South Korea has gone up to $12 billion. Discussions on upgrading the comprehensive economic agreement have not made much progress as the deficit has grown. But investment from both countries has increased. Out of a total $6.8 billion South Korean investment in India, more than $3 billion was invested in the past three years. Indian companies are also well represented in the South Korean economy with investments over $3 billion. During the discussion the two sides agreed to an Early Harvest Package that is expected to lead towards an upgraded CEPA. The two leaders agreed to work towards taking bilateral trade to $ 50 billion by 2030.
The two leaders jointly inaugurated a Samsung electronics plant in Noida, which is said to be the world’s largest mobile factory. With its eventual production of 10 million smartphones a month, the plant would help the South Korean company compete with Chinese mobile phones which have overtaken the Indian market this year. South Korean firms are considering a significant expansion of production capacity in electronics, automobiles and in new sectors such as technical textiles, chemicals, food processing and asset management. Modi welcomed South Korea’s willingness to partner India’s flagship initiative, including Make in India, Skill India, Digital India and Smart Cities.
India and South Korea agreed to cooperate in developing cutting edge technologies for commercialisation, using Indian skills for technological research together with Korean expertise in bringing new technologies into commercial use in areas such as IOT, artificial intelligence, big data, electric vehicles and advance materials.
Among the documents signed during the visit was an MOU on South Korea’s participation in the expansion of the Queen Suriratna memorial project in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Suriratna, a princess of Ayodhya is believed to have gone to Korea in AD 48 and married King Kim-Suro and was known as Queen Hur Hwang-ok. The legend is well known in Korea, where a large number of Koreans trace their ancestry to the princess. The memorial reinforces the historical linkages between India and Korea at a time when the two countries a making a push to take their ties to a new level.