From the very beginning of its term in 2014, India's incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government showed decisive intent towards bringing more dynamism in India’s foreign policy. Good examples of this were its policies towards Southeast Asia and East Asia. India not only renamed the erstwhile Look East Policy (LEP) as Act East Policy (AEP), but also announced that more substance would be added into India’s relations with these countries. Apart from more economic and political exchanges, the new policy sought to invoke India's strategic and deep-rooted cultural connections with these countries. It was expected that the Korean peninsula, which comprises North Korea and South Korea, would also receive more attention.
India-South Korea economic exchanges, cultural and educational connections and political understanding have been spectacular from the early 1990s. For example, bilateral trade between the two countries, which was less than US$1 billion, reached over US$20 billion in 2011-12. India and South Korea signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2009; and in January 2010, India and South Korea signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA).
However, the momentum in India-South Korea bilateral relations slowed in the last year of the previous Indian government. After the first two years of implementation, it was alleged that the CEPA was creating hindrances rather than propelling bilateral trade. There were also differences of opinion between New Delhi and Seoul over investment and business issues.
With the NDA government coming to power, it was expected that India and South Korea would be able to overcome these hindrances and invest renewed energy in their relations. Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi visited South Korea in May 2015 and expectedly indicated a new and important beginning in bilateral relations. During his one-and-a-half day visit, India and South Korea signed a number of agreements and MoUs in all possible areas. The two countries agreed to hold annual meetings of their foreign and defence ministers. Cooperation in the fields of defence, defence production, cultural and educational exchanges and various other common concerns were addressed during the visit.
Furthermore, both countries enhanced their SPA to Special Strategic Partnership (SSP) and declared that India’s constructive role in resolving the North Korean nuclear and missile issues along with the establishment of a peace regime in the region would be welcomed. India and South Korea also resolved to hold a review process of the CEPA and revise it. South Korea was invited to participate in the Modi government's flagship projects, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’.
However, subsequent follow-ups have been far from satisfactory. There have been some minor achievements such as the commencement of daily flights between New Delhi and Seoul and clearance to export Indian mangoes to South Korea, but on most of the critical issues, a lot still needs to be done. The inability to bring momentum to bilateral relations is equally attributable to South Korea. For example, while India seeks more Korean investments in India’s manufacturing sector, South Korean companies carry out their manufacturing activities via a handful of connections with Indian companies.
Similarly, South Korea is ready to sell LNG tankers to India without sharing its technology and know-how. While South Korea is worried about decreasing bilateral trade, it is unwilling to help with India’s trade deficits. However, all this was expected and therefore it was upon the NDA government to bring political will to overcome these problems. It appears that India, under the NDA government, has also not been able to look at the broad and long-term reciprocity and the political leadership has left it to bureaucrats to decide foreign policy via their narrow and mechanical approaches. For example, the review of the CEPA was declared by the Indian PM in May 2015 and even after over two years, the process is far from over. It was reported in early-June 2017 that India is implementing the highest number of trade regulations against South Korea, which does not speak well of this bilateral relationship.
It is also important to note that the NDA government’s manifest closeness with Japan and a show of little reluctance to be part of an alliance against China make South Korea uncomfortable. Seoul might have a security alliance with Washington but it has strong economic exchanges with Beijing, and would not like to be in a situation where it has to choose between the US and China or Japan and China.
To South Korea’s further discomfort, the NDA government has also had some interactions with North Korea. Overall, India-South Korea relations during the NDA government continue to face hindrances that crept up right at the beginning.
India-North Korea relations have also been almost static during the first three years of the NDA government. In 2015, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited India, and India's Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, after attending a function at the North Korean Embassy in New Delhi, expressed India’s intent to maintain good relations with North Korea. In fact, India has had consistent diplomatic relations with North Korea albeit the relations became cold after the revelations of nuclear and missile technology exchanges between North Korea and Pakistan. Relations strained further with economic sanctions and North Korea's diplomatic isolation by the international community.
Notwithstanding these strains, India continues to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea and maintains bilateral diplomatic relations. The few extra activities in India-North Korea relations in 2015 may be read as India’s intent to explore whether it could play a more active role in the East Asian region via North Korea.
There are also speculations that former US President Barack Obama's administration was in favour of a more active Indian role and that India’s actions were prompted by covert US support. However, India withdrew itself after it realised that the cost of flirting with North Korea would be huge and would be premature for New Delhi to venture into this.
Overall, in the past three years of the NDA rule, India’s foreign policy towards South Korea has not brought any significant change in their bilateral relations. Similarly there is nothing new to say about India’s relations with North Korea.
Although India made good gestures in the first year of the incumbent government's term, follow-ups have been slow or non-existent on most issues. The blame for this stagnation is to be placed not on the diplomats and bureaucrats but on the political leadership of both the countries. It is urgent now for the NDA government to show that the dynamism promised in the AEP is not just loud and empty promises but that they indeed have substance and political will. This will not be achieved by leaders simply congratulating each other over Twitter.