South Korean rags-to-riches story reads like a fairy tale. Yet they often liken themselves to a ‘shrimp surrounded by whales’, notwithstanding that the ‘shrimp’ now has a GDP of $1.57 trillion (2018). It has become the world’s 11th and Asia’s 4th largest economy. A technological powerhouse, it invests some 4.5% of GDP on research and development (R&D) every year, making it one of the most innovative countries in the world (Bloomberg Innovative Index 2018). It boasts of at least 3 of Asia’s 10 globally renowned brand names – Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
Indian and South Korean economies are highly complementary. On his second visit to Seoul (21–22 February 2019) as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi remarked – ‘We consider Korea as a valuable partner in India's economic transformation’. Koreans are aware of India’s huge potential as a key destination for FDI (already around $ 5 billion) and exports (bilateral trade $21.5 billion in 2018). A $50 billion trade target has been set by 2030. Korean conglomerates (chaebols) are sitting on investable reserves of over $500 billion. We concluded a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2010 which needs to be upgraded on priority.
Following PM Modi’s earlier visit to the Republic of Korea (ROK) in May 2015, when ties were elevated to Special Strategic Partnership, a Korea-specific facilitation cell 'Korea Plus' was established under 'Invest India’ to guide, assist and handhold investors, during the entire life-cycle of the business. Over 200 Korean companies have since availed of the facility.
During the last decade, bilateral cooperation has expanded to a number of areas including, cyber security, outer space, energy (civil nuclear cooperation agreement concluded in 2011), Info-tech, fourth industrial revolution (4IR), startups, tourism and culture.
A joint venture between Indian Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and Korean Hanwha has begun production of K9 Vajra artillery guns for the Indian Army. This time PM and Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to a roadmap for future cooperation in defence co-production and technology.
India with its highly skilled manpower and abundance of big data, and Korea with its outstanding infrastructure, R&D and innovation capabilities are among the driving forces in 4th industrial revolution era. Both nations are exploring ways and means to deepen collaboration in the sector. They have also instituted mechanisms to promote cooperation among Startups, as well as, commercialize their ideas, technologies and designs by establishing an India Korea Startup Centre’ in Seoul and a Korea Start-up Centre (KSC) in India. South Korean National IT Industry promotion Agency has already opened their Indian office in Bengaluru to facilitate Korean startups.
PM Modi was conferred the prestigious Seoul Peace Prize for his efforts to foster regional stability, world peace, and improve the quality of lives of India people through social inclusion initiatives.
An admirer of South Korea, PM Modi has always believed that "for India's growth, Korea's model is probably the most exemplary, and that Korea's progress is a source of inspiration for India". He and President Moon, who is as committed to the bilateral relationship, have struck an excellent personal equation. South Korea has historically focused on relationship with four key (K4) nations – the US, China, Japan and Russia. Moon is the first leader to have formally prioritized ties with India, Australia and the ASEAN region in his ‘New Southern Policy’ outlined in November 2017.
Though the precise contours of the policy are evolving, President Moon has walked the talk when it comes to India, despite his pre-occupation with normalising ties with North Korea and facilitating direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington. He had paid a highly successful visit to India in July 2018.
Transformation of bilateral ties with South Korea and Japan in the recent years, is one of the big achievements of India’s ‘Act East Policy’. Besides the facets touched upon above, even in geostrategic terms, our engagement is to mutual advantage. The Korean Peninsula is located in a sensitive geography, right in the shadow of China and Russia. ROK is getting uncomfortable with its economic over-dependence on China, which applies a squeeze, whenever its strategic objectives are not met. In 2016-17 China prevented millions of its citizens from touring Korea, hounded the Korean Lotte group and generally ratcheted up tensions, because Korea had opted to deploy two batteries of ‘Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD) system, supplied by the US.
Legend has it that Princess Suriratna from Ayodhya, travelled to Korea in 48 AD, married King Kim-Suro and became Queen Hur Hwang-ok. It is heartening that there is complete political consensus in both countries to infuse a new vigour in bilateral ties that date back millennia. .
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador to South Korea. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)