India-South Korea

Forget About Wooing Korea on Indian Standard Time

20 May, 2015    ·   4876

Prof Vyjayanti Raghavan takes stock of the India-South Korea bilateral as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the country

Narendra Modi, who has visited 17 countries in the one year that he’s been Prime Minister, made his latest stop in South Korea at the end of a three-nation Asian tour that took him to China and Mongolia.

In Korea, he talked about ‘Make in India’. He talked about Asian Unity. He talked about defence cooperation. He talked about international institutions and the need to reform them. He talked about security dialogues.

India and Korea signed seven agreements, described in the MEA’s usual way as ‘wide-ranging’. But the question now is: What are they worth and will India meet Korean expectations, especially on the economic side?

If the past is anything to go by, the Koreans may well be in for a disappointment. After all, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in their time had also invited Korea’s small and medium scale firms to come and invest in India. To date, however, there are only 300 Korean firms functioning in India. Their number is growing, but at a snail’s pace.

Hare and tortoise
The main reason is that India and Korea have very different notions of time. One places very little value on it; the other thinks the only way to live is in a hurry, what they call palli, palli (jaldi, jaldi or seekram, seekram, as we might say in Hindi or Tamil).

For the past 40 years, the talk has been there but the walk is missing. Every time an Indian PM goes there, starting with Rao in 1993, to the latest by Narendra Modi, we hear all the right noises. Some progress, like on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, is even made.

But it all remains on paper, except perhaps in the field of education where the connections have indeed widened and deepened. In fact, the political, strategic and cultural dimensions of the India-Korea relationship remain almost at the same level where they were 30 years ago — in the realm of hope and possibilities.

There’s much that could be done if only we could get our act together. Nothing exemplifies this more than the POSCO fiasco. It has come to define the relationship.

The story is worth retelling. Korea came to India with a $12 billion investment proposal in 2005, the largest FDI project that any country had brought in till then. I was in Korea when the news broke and there was much excitement: the Koreans thought this would be their gateway to the 1.2 billion people Indian market for their goods.

They were in for a big surprise. They soon realised that the Indian system did not function in any way that they had ever encountered anywhere in the world. They simply could not fathom its ellipses.

They have waited patiently — and are doing so even now. But time is running out, just the way the MOU did. It came up for renewal in 2011 and the Koreans just let it slide.

If Modi really wants to send a message that India is serious about Korea – over-ruling the External Affairs ministry’s arrogance that the Koreans have no place else to go – he will switch to Korean time for the execution of whatever the two countries agree to do together. Indian standard time will simply not do.

For Koreans promises made must be kept. ‘Yaksok’ in Korean means both a promise and an appointment. Both are sacrosanct. Neither the promise nor the time schedule can be reneged upon.

Unfortunately the Indian style ‘vaada’ is only a verbal promise and like everything else can be changed to suit the context. In this case, India would be a big loser as the Koreans now have no dearth of countries waiting for their investments.

What next
Net-net, India has to get its act together on the economic side because this will then propel cooperation in other areas like marine technology, space technology, ship building, nuclear technology, green technology, R&D in defence and maritime security etc. They could pursue broader joint engagement in global forums like the WTO, G-20, the east Asia Summit, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, that Asean is floating as a free trade area for the Asean+6 countries, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and perhaps the Trans-Pacific Patnership (that currently excludes India) too.

Once Korea is convinced that India means business, they will support it in all forums including for a permanent position at the UN Security Council.

Let’s not forget how, when the going became good on the economic front, the Koreans went to great lengths to ferret out historical linkages between the two nations. They trotted out the story of an Ayodhya princess sailing to Korea and marrying a Korean king and starting an Indian bloodline; they spotted Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry; then came talk about Gandhiji’s influence and, the similarity between Tamil and Korean, not to mention the similarity in folk games like gilli-danda and Jachigi!

India’s turn
Personally speaking – and here I am in total sync with Modi – one area where I think we could greatly benefit from the Koreans is in acquiring professionalism. The commitment to deliver what has been promised and the lengths to which they can stretch themselves in order to adhere to an agreed time-frame is something worth emulating.

That said, it’s not been an entirely dreary story. India-Korea bilateral trade has grown from a mere $500 million in the early 1990s to about $18 billion now. Korean electronic products, mobile phone handsets and even cars have managed to push out many other giants, including Japanese ones, and grab a sizeable portion of the market through what they call their ‘nunchi’ power — the power to sense what the sangdaebang or ‘the other party’ wants.

But this is a case of been there, done that. Now the time has come to push the relationship further.

The responsibility for this is entirely India’s.

Note: This commentary was originally published on 19 May 2015 by The Wire, and has been republished with permission from the author.