In a congratulatory message to Yoon Suk-yeol on his victory in South Korea’s presidential elections last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was looking forward to further strengthening New Delhi-Seoul ties.
Observers say India-South Korea ties are poised to grow further under Prime Minister Modi and President Yoon. The hopes thereof are grounded in realities. India-Korea relations have been strong since ancient times. Indian Princess (from Ayodhya) Suriratna went to Korea, married King Kim-Suro, and became Queen Heo Hwang-ok in 48 AD. In the post-World War II landscape, India established diplomatic ties with South Korea. It condemned North Korea as an aggressor against the South during the Korean War. ,
After India’s then Prime Minister P. V Narsimha Rao opened up the country’s economy and adopted his famous ‘Look East’ policy in the nineties, relations between the two nations improved a lot. They signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (2010) and the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (2011).
Since Prime Minister Modi took over in India in June 2014, relations between the two nations have improved further. His government has had an ‘ACT East’ policy. During Modi’s visit to Seoul in May 2015, the two sides elevated their ties to a ‘Special Strategic Partnership’. In 2018, they signed 11 agreements, including in the areas of trade, cultural and, scientific and technological cooperation. In 2019, they concluded seven agreements (2019) to enhance cooperation in areas, including infrastructure development, start-ups and combating trans-border and international terror.
Today New Delhi and Seoul recognize the importance of the freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce. They have instituted mechanisms, such as the Foreign Ministers-led Joint Commission, the Vice Ministerial 2+2, and the National Security Council-level, to chart out a common course of action on all these issues.
South Korea backs India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Defence cooperation between New Delhi and Seoul is growing. South Korea today is a major supplier of weapons and military equipment to India. New Delhi and Seoul are also working together to battle the scourge of counter-terrorism.
One hopes the growth in relations between the two nations will reach full potential in the future. Currently, the India-South Korea trade stands at just $23.6 billion (2021 figure). India figures little in South Korea’s export-led economy. Modi and Yoon must direct their ministries to take steps to improve the bilateral trade scenario.
Additionally, New Delhi may see that South Korea joins the famous Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). India is a core member of this group. It can convince Japan, the United States and Australia to welcome South Korea into the fold. South Korea fits well into the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ for the development of which the group is meant. South Korea was a part of the Quad Plus meetings in March 2020.
Pertinently, Yoon seems to be a natural ally of New Delhi in combating Chinese aggressive behaviour in the region. In his poll campaign speeches, he called for “pursuing additional anti-missile system deployment” and “doing away with South Korea’s submissive diplomacy toward China.” He flayed China for its authoritarianism and high-handed behaviour in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.
(The author is a New Delhi-based journalist)