“The World is determined to commit suicide.”
After a failed bid at nurturing peace in the Korean Peninsula, Jawaharlal Nehru’s observation on the deteriorating relations between the United States and North Korea in 1950, serves a poignant reminder of the dangers of brinkmanship in East Asia.
India, though geographically distanced from the peninsula, has played an important role in Korea’s affairs since the Second World War. For a while, Nehru was the primary interlocutor between the United States, the Western Powers and China; with Nehru providing early warning of a Chinese intervention. In a way, he was the only world leader who recognized the horrors that a Third World War would bring.
Nehru’s India was well-placed to mediate – being a proponent of non-alignment in a world that was rapidly splitting into Eastern and Western blocs. But Nehru’s commitment to neutrality was questioned by the Americans – who saw him as softer on the Soviets than he was on the Western powers.
The better part of a century has passed since then. And the threat of World War over Korea has yet to abate. But since Nehru’s passing, India’s relationship with North Korea has been a curious mix of condemnation and condonation.
For years, India was among North Korea’s largest trading partners. Up to 2010, India exported over $1 billion in the value of goods to the DPRK – importing a paltry $57 million in imports. India is the hermit kingdom’s second largest trading partner after China – mostly of food and medicine.
India has regularly condemned North Korea for conducting nuclear tests. But at the same time, India has been late in enacting several key sanctions on the country.
For more than a decade, since 1996, North Korean students lived in the valley town of Dehradun, near the hostels of the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing. There, they were enrolled in the Center For Space Science And Technology Education In Asia And The Pacific (CSSTEAP). The courses have more to do with using remote sensing data to plan agriculture and watersheds – but there is more than meets the eye. UN investigators felt some courses would have been useful for the DPRK to put a launch vehicle into orbit – while others were found in violation of a resolution that banned the transfer of satellite communication technology to the DPRK.
It was only in 2016, once it came to the United Nation’s attention that the program was breaking the rules, that the participation of North Koreans was annulled. By then, at least 30 had taken training from the institute. One of the students, Paek Chong-Ho, headed an agency that launched the DPRK’s first satellite in 2012.
However, on the flip side, India has the distinction of being among the first countries to expose North Korea’s clandestine missile program. In 1999, Indian customs officials raided a North Korean cargo vessel that was docking in Mumbai and ordered it to the port of Kandla in Gujarat. The North Koreans on board claimed the ship was carrying water purification equipment. But what officials uncovered were missile-making kits – enough to ten of the Scud-B and Scud-C variants.
At the time, it was the largest interdiction of any country of a shipment of such scale. Diaries were recovered – printed in Pakistan – that had written instructions on missile-manufacture. India summoned the members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to inspect the shipment – at a time when India was undergoing sanctions from many of the MTCR’s members.
Surprisingly, the US paid little attention to India’s find with regards to the Pakistan connection. It was an irony compounded by the shocking find only a few years later; when in 2002, it emerged that a top Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan had been trading nuclear secrets with North Korea for years.
The presence of a nuclear triad is what concerns India most. China, which has historically armed Pakistan and aided their nuclear programme, is believed to indirectly support the North Korean nuclear and missile programme through Pakistan’s clandestine dealings. Pakistan’s first missile capable of striking most of India, the Ghauri, was long said to be influenced by a North Korean design – the Rodong-I, itself influenced by a combination of Egyptian and Chinese Scuds. This was later confirmed by none other than the de-facto Pakistani ruler and President from 1999-2008, Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s more advanced missiles are believed to be renamed versions of Chinese imports.
India has tried to make international recognition of the Pakistani connection to North Korea one of its foreign policy goals, achieved in part when Japan joined India in a thinly veiled condemnation of this in 2017.
In 2006 and 2009, India seized and inspected North Korean vessels passing through its waters, but found nothing.
As India’s engagement with South Korea grows, it finds itself more willing to sever the economic ties with North Korea. South Korean investment in Indian industry more than outpaces any economic benefit India gets from trading with North Korea.
Against the backdrop of recent tensions, India has refused to join in the diplomatic isolation of North Korea. It was only in April 2017, that India banned all trade with the DPRK besides that of food and medicines. And in October, India refused an implied US request to shut down its diplomatic embassy in Pyongyang.
This was soon followed by a statement from Rex Tillerson, suggesting that India believes its embassy in the DPRK could serve as a conduit for communication. If so, this preserves the policy built by Nehru, where India helps prevent World War III from breaking out over the Korean peninsula by maintaining a diplomatic presence.
During the Korean war, the only time where the United States, China and the DPRK have all fought at the same time, Indian forces served a vital role as doctors. The 60th Indian Field Ambulance Unit served in Korea, performing 2,324 surgical operations on 195,000 outpatients and 20,000 inpatients, winning several awards from allied countries for their service.
India’s official desire, outlined in 2000 during the South-North Joint Declaration, is for the peaceful reunification of Korea. ‘Hawkish’ is a state of mind that Indian policymakers have never been over North Korea – even when connections with the country’s worst enemy were laid bare. Is India keeping non-alignment alive by continuing its ties with North Korea?
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