In a post earlier in the week, we looked at India-DPRK trade relations over the last decade, and the curious spike in trade in 2006-7 in particular. As it turns out, there is a longer diplomatic history behind these relations, and new initiatives and thinking that mirror India’s diplomatic rise.
India’s relations with the Korean peninsula go back to its early independence period. India chaired the ill-fated UN Commission set up to oversee peninsula-wide elections in 1947 as well as the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission. Consular relations with DPRK were set up in March 1962 and upgraded to full diplomatic relations in 1973 with a full embassy presence.
The Ministry of External Affairs page (in .pdf) and several other entries trace a history of Indian humanitarian support for North Korea, including:
- 2,000 MT of white rice in September 2002;
- 1000 MT of rice in July 2004 and 200,000 doses of Dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory;
- Medicines for the victims of the Ryongchon train blast in April 2004;
- 2,000 MT of rice in January 2006;
- Food assistance worth US$ 1.00 million through the WFP in 2011.
But The Telegraph (Calcutta) tells a much more interesting tale of a 2010 initiative that led to a substantial food aid package in that year. Despite the fact that diplomatic relations had been established in 1973, visits were generally at a pretty low level (the Ministry page has a list). In 2010, India decided to participate in the sixth Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair. The initiative was not lost on the North Koreans, who were experiencing a particular bout of food distress at the time and approached the Indians about a fairly large—30,000MT—food aid package. The request generated a sharp debate given the DPRK’s alignment with India’s arch-enemy Pakistan. The compromise was apparently to consider the request only if conditions could be assessed on the ground. The result was that the Indian Ambassador was not only granted a briefing on the crisis, but was allowed to tour some of the countryside, making him “the toast of the diplomatic community in Pyongyang because he had seen slices of North Korean life that most ambassadors accredited to the communist regime had not been allowed a peek into.”
Of all the BRIC’s, India’s foreign policy is the one that most clearly lags its rising stature; sheer constraints on the size of the foreign policy establishment is one reason. But as India plays a more active role in the region, it will naturally be sorting out how to think about North Korea. As it turns out, the debate on North Korea in India has been surprisingly robust. A piece from 2011 in the International Business Times cites a range of analysts, and is revealing of the many cross-cutting cleavages on the issue, from relations with Seoul, to the Pakistan nuclear connection; interestingly, India expanded the list of dual-use technologies and goods in the wake of the 2013 sanctions (brief story in the The Hindu here). More recently, the Defence Forum of India reviews the situation also addressing the role that economic engagement and training might play. To our surprise, India provides 18-20 technical training seats to DPRK officials as well as English language and IT training to military officers from North Korea.
As we noticed at the outset, these are snippets rather than a coherent whole. But India provides the type of partner that might play a surprisingly positive role. The DFI piece pulls no punches on India’s stance with respect to the DPRK’s nuclear program—unalterably opposed—nor on its economic isolation and political system. But New Delhi, with is non-aligned and Third World-ist foreign policy history, may have much more credibility delivering these messages than the hectoring tone coming from the US (including from us!).