50 Years of Diplomatic Ties: Convergence and Challenges in India-South Korea Relations
Dr Sweta Kumari, Associate Fellow, VIF

The year 2023 marks 50 years of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between India and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The Korean Embassy in New Delhi made a spectacular display of growing people-to-people ties between the two countries on social media on February 26 with Ambassador Chang Jae-bok along with the embassy staff dancing to the Golden Globes-winning song ‘Naatu Naatu’ from the Indian movie RRR that has got popularity across the globe including South Korea. The act received praise from PM Narendra Modi and millions of Indians.

While there are mutual cultural and civilisational elements in the relationship between India and South Korea, trade and regional security are critical aspects of it. India hopes to strengthen future-oriented bilateral cooperation in science, cutting-edge technologies, and infrastructure. With this year's commencement, both countries engaged in the fifth Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue (FPSD) organised in Seoul on January 16 and 17. During the dialogue, the two countries agreed to expand the scope of the relationship by enhancing trade and investment, cooperating in security and defence cooperation, collaborating in the field of S&T, and promoting cultural and people-to-people ties[1].

India-South Korea Recent Engagements

India and South Korea, the two key stakeholders in the Indo- Pacific region, have been making some concrete efforts to deepen and broaden their relationship for more than a decade. Both are signatories to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) since 2009. In 2010, the relationship was designated as ‘Strategic Partnership’ by the two governments which was later elevated to the level of ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ in 2015. India’s Act East Policy (2015) and South Korea’s New Southern Policy (2017) have a lot of convergence in terms of their regional priorities.

In the area of defence, the annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue has been held since 2015. The Defence Policy Dialogue which started in 2013 was elevated to the level of 2+2 Dialogue in 2019. A number of MoUs have been signed in with regard to defence cooperation, research and development. Since 2005, nine Joint Committee Meetings (JCMs), a bilateral dialogue for cooperation in defence industries and logistics have been conducted between the Minister Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the South Korean Ministry of Defense and the Secretary, Defence Production (DP), Indian Ministry of Defence, with the last one held in October 2021. Similarly, four Steering Committee Meetings (SCMs) for joint defence research and development have taken place between DRDO and DAPA.[2] The two countries are also engaged in maritime cooperation with the visits of ships from the Korea Coast Guard and Indian Coast Guard to each other's ports. The two navies have engaged in joint exercises with the objective of enhancing interoperability among themselves. In the year 2022, ICG and KCG held joint exercises in January. Another joint exercise took place in the month of October between INS Sumedha and South Korean naval ships Hansando and Dae Cheong. The exercise included activities such as helicopter operations, communication drills and tactical manoeuvres.[3] A Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) was held between INS Shivalik and Kamorta and RoK Naval Ship No Jeok Bong in November.[4]

As a result of the efforts made by both sides to facilitate economic ties, trade has been enhanced over the years. In 2022, bilateral trade increased to a record high of approximately 28 billion USD. The two countries aspire to take commerce up to 50 billion USD by 2030.[5] The Indian government has been making efforts to attract foreign investors through its ‘Make in India’ scheme. A diverse range of Korean firms producing smartphones, electronics, and automotive and involved in steel making and food processing including Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, POSCO, Lotte and SsangYong Motors have been expanding their manufacturing centers and facilities in India. Some of these companies not only produce goods for Indian consumption but a section of the product is also sent to the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Australia and the Indo-Pacific region.[6]

Converging Foreign Policy Priorities

The joint statement released after the meeting between former President Moon Jae-in and PM Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2018 highlighted the common principles in strengthening the special strategic partnership “based on shared universal values of democracy, free market economy, rule of law, common commitment to a peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based region.”[7] Narendra Modi and President Yoon Suk-Yeol held a telephonic conversation in March 2022 after the election of the latter and reiterated the same commitment.[9] India has raised its concerns over proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies by the DPRK at the United Nations Security Council. In November 2022, it officially condemned the launch of ICBMs stating it would be adverse for the peace and security in the region and the international community.[10]

Economic Dimensions

In the economic sphere, the disruption of global supply chains which began with the COVID-19 pandemic and got further intensified with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has adversely affected the two important economies of the region. China’s zero-Covid policy and shutdowns have made the policymakers in both countries reduce their economic dependency on China and diversify trade with other countries in the region.

Shift in South Korea’s Regional Aspirations under Yoon Administration

South Korean strategic thinkers are now more explicit in denouncing China for neglecting to prioritise the issue of North Korean aggression. While the previous administration under the leadership of President Moon Jae-in had a balanced approach to maintaining equidistant relations with China, the US and other partners in the region, the new Yoon administration is more open about outlining the challenges posed by the changing security environment in the region and more willing in working towards its strategic priorities. The public perception of China is also becoming increasingly negative among South Koreans over the years. According to a study by Pew Research Center, 81% of people hold a negative view of China owing to factors like intensifying North Korean threat, retributive policies of China towards South Korea after the deployment of the US missile interceptor, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in 2016 and the COVID-19 pandemic. The approval rating of President Yoon Suk-yeol has not been very high for various reasons; however, the foreign policy is an area where his administration views are seen more favourably by the public. The debates about developing nuclear capabilities have also gained traction within the strategic community.

President Yoon, in April 2022, expressed interest to review the option of South Korea joining Quad if invited.[11] In the meantime, he laid out the importance of deepening ties with the Quad countries in vaccines, climate change issues as well as in new and emerging technologies.[12] Later, in November 2022, he announced South Korea's Indo-Pacific Strategy, which seeks to diversify economic relations and promote rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.[13] The document was published as the “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”. The strategy has been assessed to be in alignment with the US’ Indo-Pacific narrative.[14] The administration has recently indicated to “accelerate” its involvement in the Quad’s working group.[15] Even though any formal statement from New Delhi has not come up on these developments, these do indicate a convergence of interests.

India in South Korea’s Indo- Pacific Strategy

Since the inception of the concept of Indo- Pacific, the significance of India has been central to it. The fervour to deepen ties with India has been reflected in the ROK’s Indo- Pacific Strategy Citing “we will advance our special strategic partnership with India, a leading regional partner with shared values. India presents great potential for growth having the world’s second largest population and cutting-edge IT and space technologies. We will increase strategic communication and cooperation through high-level exchanges in foreign affairs and defense, while strengthening the foundation for enhanced economic cooperation by upgrading the ROK-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)”[16].

Glitches and the Way Forward

While there are so many advances in India- South Korea relations, some impediments hinder a greater collaboration. India recently raised concerns over the trade deficit in the ninth round of the India-Republic of Korea (ROK) Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) up-gradation negotiation held in Seoul in November 2022. For the year 2021-22, Indian export to Korea was approximately $8.08 billion whereas the import to India held at about $17.5 billion.[17] The technical barriers in trade including higher import duty, greater involvement of the private sector and the need for more equitable partnership looms over the economic ties.

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy document mentions broadening the bilateral ties in areas such as IT and space, a further impetus would be required by both sides at the government as well as private sector levels. Even though relations with China have become more estranged in recent times, it is still Korea’s largest and India’s second-largest trading partner. There is also a vast difference in the volume of trade that South Korea has with China and India.

To foster a durable long-term economic relationship between India and South Korea would require enhanced dialogues such as the recent FPSD to build a roadmap for collaboration and implementation in the next decade or so. Engaging through regional multilateral forums such as ASEAN and Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) would provide greater opportunities for collaboration for both India and South Korea. In IPEF, India would have to negotiate to reach agreeable terms with the trade pillar of the forum. Till that time, collaborations in supply chain resilience, infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonization could be initiated.

The completion of 50 years of India- South Korea relations gives a symbolic thrust to deepen the relationship. However, some of the developments in 2023 such as India’s G20 leadership and its agenda to push for the cause of the developing countries and to create a resilient global supply chain, the release of the joint statement of the Quad Ministerial Meeting held in New Delhi on March 3 which highlighted the challenges posed by North Korea in the Korean peninsula and the expected 10th round of bilateral CEPA talks have given a strategic relevance to this year. The power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region are rapidly changing. The deterioration of US-China relations has grave implications for both India and South Korea. This trend is expected to continue for a long time. It is to be seen how these two countries that share similar values and challenges find new avenues of bilateral cooperation and a peaceful and stable regional order.

Endnotes :

[1]Republic of Korea, “5th Korea-India Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,January 18, 2023, URL: https://mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5674/view.do?seq=320770&page=1 Accessed on January 31, 2023
[2]India-ROK Defence Relations, Embassy of India in Seoul, November 10, 2022, URL; https://www.indembassyseoul.gov.in/india-rok-defence-relations Accessed on January 31, 2023
[3]Tribune News Service, “India, South Korea hold Naval Exercise”, The Tribune, October 3, 2022, URL: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/india-s-korea-hold-naval-exercise-437859#:~:text=The%20exercise%20included%20helicopter%20operations,operability%20between%20the%20two%20navies. Accessed on January 30, 2023
[4]Ministry of Defence, “Indian Naval Ships Shivalik and Kamorta Complete visit to South Korea”, Press Information Bureau, November 25, 2022, URL: https://www.pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1878867 Accessed on February 2, 2023
[6] “The Korean Connection”, Make in India, URL: https://www.makeinindia.com/korean-connection Accessed on February 2, 2023
[7]Republic of Korea, “President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Narendra Modi Adopts Shared Vision for People, Prosperity, Peace and Future” , Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 11, 2018, URL:https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5674/view.do?seq=319715&srchFr=&%3BsrchTo=&%3BsrchWord=&%3BsrchTp=&%3Bmulti_itm_seq=0&%3Bitm_seq_1=0&%3Bitm_seq_2=0&%3Bcompany_cd=&%3Bcompany_nm=&page=2&titleNm= Accessed on February 2, 2023
[8] “PM Modi's telephonic conversation with President-elect of Republic of Korea”, Narendra Modi App, March 17, 2022, URL: https://www.narendramodi.in/prime-minister-shri-narendra-modi-spoke-on-phone-earlier-today-with-his-excellency-yoon-suk-yeol-president-elect-of-the-republic-of-korea-560673 Accessed on February 2, 2023
[9]Diepen, Vann H. Vann, “North Korea Showcases Two Types of ICBMs In November 2022 Tests”, 38 North, December 02, 2022, URL: https://www.38north.org/2022/12/north-korea-showcases-two-types-of-icbms-in-november-2022-tests/ Accessed on February 2, 2023
[10]Bhasin, Swati, “India raises concern over North Korea missile tests at UNSC, 2nd time in weeks”, The Hindustan Times, November 22, 2022, URL: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-raises-concern-on-north-korea-missile-tests-at-unsc-2nd-time-in-a-month-101669079722757.html Accessed on March 21, 2023
[11]Silver, Laura, Christine Huang and Laura Clancy, “Negative Views of China Tied to Critical Views of Its Policies on Human Rights”, Pew research Center, June 29, 2022, URL: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/06/29/negative-views-of-china-tied-to-critical-views-of-its-policies-on-human-rights/ Accessed on March 21, 2023
[12]Foreign Affairs, “Yoon says will 'positively review joining' Quad if invited: report”, The Korea Times, April, 26, 2022 https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/04/120_328012.html Accessed on March 21, 2023
[13]Kim, Min Joo, “Interview with South Korea’s next president, Yoon Suk-yeol”, The Washington Post, April 14, 2022, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/14/south-korea-president-yoon-transcript/ Accessed on March 21, 2023
[14]He-rim, Jo, “South Korea aligns Indo-Pacific strategy with US, Japan: experts”, The Korea Herald, URL: https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20221114000604 (Accessed on December 26, 2022)
[16]Republic of Korea, “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” , Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2022 URL: https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5676/view.do?seq=322133 Accessed on February 2, 2023
[17]Ministry of Commerce, “Ninth Round of India-ROK CEPA Up-Gradation Negotiation held in Seoul”, Press Information Bureau, November 04, 2022 https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1873807

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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