Asia Institute Seminar
June 2, 2012
“An Indian Perspective on the Korean Peninsula”
Dr. Vyjayanti Raghavan
Centre for Japanese, Korean and Northeast Asian Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University
How does the recent tension on the Korean Peninsula look from an Indian Perspective? India has obviously a profoundly different cultural tradition and historical experience. And yet we are quite aware of the fact that India has had any number of conflicts and disagreements over the last sixty years. After all, Pakistan and India were separated in 1947, the exact moment that the divisions between North and South Korea were forming.
So what might be some differences in the way that the Indian observer would look at the Korean experience, and perhaps have some insights that are not so obvious to the Koreans caught up in the day-to-day conflicts with North Korea. Are there some lessons from the Indian experience that can be helpful in addressing the long-term issue of the divided Peninsula?
Over the years, India has had any number of issues with Pakistan, and also faced serious internal challenges as well. So there are some distinct aspects of the Indian perspective on the Korean Peninsula that can help to shine light on the current conflict and perhaps to seek out long-term solutions to the conflicts of the divided peninsula.
First, Indians see North Korea as an almost exact counterpart of Pakistan and see strong parallels with their own experiences. First, both countries were once part of the same nation and divided for complex ideological and geopolitical reasons.
Moreover, today North Korea and Pakistan both rank very high on the index of “failed states” with serious internal and external liabilities that cause great international concern. The extremes that we see in both states can be traced back to the negative legacy of the colonial past and profound insecurities within the state that rule out the sort of normal exchange that other states take for granted.
In both cases, those insecurities are manifested through authoritarian military states in which civil society plays a minimal role. Pakistan does not have the same space for a public debate and civil society that we find in India, and it appears to us that North Korea is rather similar in this respect.
Those parallels extend into the economic realm. Both nations are plagued by unending economic crises with the result that most in the international community consider them to be “basket cases” beyond the fringe in their behavior and norms.
How about the security realm?
More recently, both nations have embarked on reckless programs to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons without any concern for the regional instability bred of such activities. They both sell their weapons in the international arms bazaar for profits without concern for global norms.
Nuclear weapons and sales of arms on the black market are indicative of a general denial of international standards and norms and a willingness to recklessly spread sensitive technologies without concern for regulations on proliferation. Both nations employ blackmail regularly in their negotiations. Not only that, they are both capable of supporting, and engaging in terrorist activities on occasion.
From a geopolitical perspective, North Korea and Pakistan have served as client states of superpowers such as China and Russia in larger geopolitical games. That rather destructive brinkmanship has caused much chaos and is common to both.
Therefore, India and South Korea both face similar challenges in terms of security, culture and politics from an aggressive and irresponsible neighbor. And for that matter, both countries have tried patiently to resolve outstanding issues through peaceful negotiations.
One striking difference is that India is not seeking reunification with Pakistan and there is no “ministry of Unification” and there is an Indian ambassador stationed in Islamabad. We do not have the same concept of ethnic reunification, perhaps because India is originally so ethnically diverse.
India’s approach today is to work determinedly towards strengthening the civilian government of Pakistan. Indians see that only through the development of a strong civilian government and the growth of a public sphere in Pakistan can the inordinate role of the military in Pakistan be reduced and the disruption by the military of normal state-to-state relations be brought under control. There is much to be said for such an approach in my opinion.
That comparison is fascinating and I must say it had not occurred to me that the parallels were so close. Of course Pakistan is not as completely isolated, and it does cooperate with the United States in a variety of ways, economic, diplomatic and military, granted with great problems. But what might there be of value to the Koreans in the Indian experience. You mentioned the need for engagement in building civil society in Pakistan. That seems like a very solid approach, and perhaps there is something that could be done with North Korea. Tell us what other possible lessons are there from engagement with Pakistan that might be helpful, What might Koreans learn from the Indian experience in terms of long-term management of a dangerous situation, of effective engagement and valid confrontation?
As a basic level, I feel that as geographical neighbors there is no alternative but for us to live together amicably. India too has gone through alternating periods of confrontation and engagement with Pakistan. So far neither approach has proven to be that effective. But, as I mentioned, the persistent and systematic efforts of India to engage with the civilian government of Pakistan is slowly beginning to pay off. We are seeing now the first of concrete initiatives for cooperation in trade, in the political realm and even in military exchanges. There has been progress, granted the road has had its ups and downs.
In Northeast Asia, the North Korea issue remains the primary block to integration and the formation of a peaceful community. It sometimes seems a bit ridiculous that with all the initiatives for collaboration between China, Korea and Japan that the North Korea issue still has not been solved. And yet, at the same time, many people feel that a sudden move towards unification, towards true normalization of the situation on the peninsula, could result in a destabilizing geopolitical situation with unpredictable consequences. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Feasibility and sustainability are prerequisites for any long-term solution and that will require careful thinking and careful planning. But as far as desirability is concerned, normalization would be, and I dare say it should be, the most desirable situation for both sides, for all parties in Northeast Asia. I can certainly imagine such a resolution as a true win-win situation for both Koreas. And the process would do so much to increase stability in the region. The Korean peninsula could become a power to reckon with in every sense if normalization and the first steps towards reconciliation were undertaken.
What exactly is the potential that you see in a unified Korean peninsula and why has it been so very difficult to realize despite many efforts over the last few decades? I certainly remember back in 1999 there seemed to be so much potential for real progress on the peninsula, but all those good intentions and even solid policy proposals could simply not be implemented. There was simply too much resistance to fundamental change on all sides.
Many Koreans would say that it is the desires and interests of the great powers that keep the peninsula divided. That is to say, that a solution cannot be found simply between the two Koreas. Is that an accurate assumption? Or is there another way to approach this problem?
The impact of unification on Korea will be multifaceted, but above all its psychological impact will be tremendous—and overshadows other possible problems. Unification will unleash positive energy that will allow Korea to harness all the opportunities – economic and diplomatic—made possible by this enormous geopolitical change. I would also stress that although there may be those in the United States or China who want to hinder unification, that ultimately that unification is in their interests as well. We need to rethink our very concept of our interests.
Yes, it is true that during Kim Dae Jung and Clinton administrations both North and South Korea were moving in the right direction. But then there was a change in the administrations of both the United States and South Korea and a combination of factors both domestic and international resulted in all those efforts coming to naught.
So let us come back to North Korea as it is seen by South Koreans on a daily basis. On the one hand, there are these Six Party talks that go on and on but do not seem to solve the problem at all. The food is great and its looks impressive on television, but there is serious uncertainty as to what the result of these talks might be, what it could possibly be. But many see these Six Party Talks as the only way to engage with North Korea. The whole process seems like a stalemate. Is there some way we can use our imagination, think on a grander scale, and get to another level in addressing this issue? What are your thoughts on what might be possible?
Yes, the Six party Talks have not achieved all that much in part because each party involved has its own agenda vis-a-vis North Korea, and so the talks start at cross purposes in my opinion. Most of the issues need to be addressed bilaterally between South and North Korea. If somehow the North could be convinced by the South to enter into bilateral talks, as it did during Kim Dae Jung’s administration, maybe a deal could be worked out. In any case, with the possibility of the United States reducing its defense presence in Northeast Asia in the future, South Korea needs to start thinking of solutions for the various issues involving North Korea in a regional context.
So I can see from your comments that Korea is a very important country for you and that you have had a long-term engagement. How did you start your relationship with Korea?
I completed a master’s degree in Korean history at Seoul National University, studying there from 1977 to 1981 thanks to a generous Korean Government scholarship. Before that, I completed the advanced level in Korean Language at the Seoul National University Language Institute and then went on to do my Master’s degree under the guidance of Professor Han Woo-Keun.
How were you treated in Korea at that time?
Very royally indeed, as I was one of the very few foreigners at that time who actually went through the effort of learning the language to do my research. I found that many Koreans were rather enamored with India because of the influence of Buddhism. But they had not had many opportunities to meet with Indians and so were quite delighted to talk with me. Interestingly, Koreans often mistook me for a Brazilian. I found the people to be so genuine and so warm.
I have travelled extensively within South Korea, as part of the field trips organized by the History department at SNU, on trips organized by the Ministry of Education as well as on my own adventures. But I haven’t traveled to North Korea. I tried enquiring about the visa a couple of times here, but I did not make any headway. I’d love to visit that country with some other scholars.
What is India’s relationship with North Korea today?
On the one hand, overall relations are cordial, on the other hand, India remains concerned about North Korea’s cooperation regarding nuclear and missile technology with Pakistan and Myanmar, our immediate neighbors. Trade relations between North Korea and India are stable and solid.
What is the study of Korea in India like these days? How do Indians approach the study of Korea?
The study of Korea is gaining popularity in India by leaps and bounds. All Universities and institutes in India that had until recently only concentrated on Chinese and Japanese studies, and considered that to be all of East Asian Studies, have suddenly woken up to the fact that the departments are incomplete without including Korean studies. The demand for Korean language has shot up tremendously because of the job opportunities for graduates. There is not a single graduate student from our department who had trouble finding a job.
In fact, because Korea now has state-of-the-art facilities and programs in the applied sciences, in marine engineering and in the IT field a number of Indians want to come to Korea to pursue their higher degrees in these areas as well. Korean culture, Korean business and Korean education are all gaining a large audience in India today.