India and North Korea: time for a reset?

Amb. Anil Wadhwa, Senior Fellow & Cluster Leader, VIF

General VK Singh, the Indian Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs was in North Korea from 15- 16 May 2018. Many have raised eyebrows on the timing of this visit, especially since the last ministerial visit from India to North Korea was in 1998. High-level contact between the two countries, however, have been maintained sporadically, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong was in New Delhi in 2015. Despite the history of Pakistan and North Korea collaboration in the nuclear and missile fields in the past, Indian and North Korean delegations have been meeting regularly on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit and related meetings. A major thread binding the two together has been India’s food aid to North Korea, which has been reeling under international sanctions and pressure due to its pariah status.

The last few years have seen unprecedented rhetoric from North Korea, matched by equally strong words from the United States, followed by increased sanctions, as the North embarked on an acceleration in the development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  India had to follow the sanctions route of the United Nations and USA, and its bilateral trade with North Korea fell from US$ 209 million in 2015-16 to US$ 130 in 2016-17. In line with UN sanctions, India banned all trade with North Korea except food and medicine. Following a gazette notification which incorporated the sanctions imposed since 2006, all trade of exports of defence, space and technology, training etc. was banned, and a ban imposed on officials suspected to be involved in nuclear proliferation. Bank account of North Korean diplomats in India were restricted, and there were curbs on the procurement of coal, minerals and other materials from North Korea. The Indian embassy in Pyongyang, however, has continued to function.

The winds are changing on the Korean peninsula. There has been a rapprochement between North and South, and expectations have been raised for a meeting of Kim Jong Un with Trump. The proposed meeting on 12 June in Singapore has slipped into the realm of doubt and the proposed official level meeting between North and South Korean officials have also not happened, with North Korea blaming US officials of proposing a “Libya style” denuclearization proposal on the North, without going into substantive discussions. While the North Koreans have signalled a desire for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the North Korean view will be that it must be done on a reciprocal, phased manner with guarantees that there will be no regime change in North Korea.

India has trained North Korean scientists under the UN COPUS programme at its Dehradun facility, has collaborated with the North in the agricultural field, and its cultural troupes have paid continuous visits to North Korea. Besides food aid, Indian pharmaceuticals are popular in North Korea due to their generic nature and consequently, cheaper prices. The fact that India was one of the top three trading partners of North Korea before the sanctions is testimony to the fact that the commodities traded are complementary.

A major achievement of General VK Singh’s visit was the assurance he received on the possible collaboration and technology transfer between North Korea and Pakistan which the North Koreans said was not in the realm of possibility, given the close relationship between India and North Korea. But the purpose of the visit at this stage also seems to be India’s desire to play a role in the opening of the North Korean economy, and participation in the reform of its dismal economy once there is a thaw with the outside world which now looks likely. India can quickly ramp up its exports of agriculture, steel products and pharmaceuticals and , and restart imports of North Korea iron and other metals. General Singh met with Vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme Peoples Assembly Kim Yong Dae, Culture Minister Pak Chung Nam and Foreign Minister Choe Hui Chol. They agreed to strengthen people to people contacts through culture, cooperate in vocational training, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, promotion of yoga and traditional medicine. India can quickly ramp up its exports, and look at possible investments in the metallurgical sector which it has been offered in the past. Above all, India must be engaged in the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and ensure that there is no proliferation of nuclear or missile technologies from North Korea in our neighbourhood.

From Hurling Abuses to Summit Diplomacy: What Factors are Driving Kim Jong-un?

Divya Tyagi, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

Kim Jong-un’s new year speech (saehae yeonseol) kick-started an accelerated pace of political shifts in the Korean Peninsula. With the emphasis on creating a ‘peaceful environment’ on the Peninsula, Kim surprised the world with his turnabout from hurling abuses to proposing peace talks. But the question arises, why has he changed his stance and what could be the possible reason behind this sudden shift in Kim’s approach.

If we take lessons from history then, the Panmunjom declaration might just be yet another disappointment. The summit of 27 April 2018 was the third Inter-Korean summit after the Korean war. During the summit of 2000, images of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il (father of Kim Jong-un) shaking hands and clinking champagne glasses covered the news, as the two leaders signed a “broad agreement to work toward peace and reunification.”[1] The second summit came in 2007 after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Similarly, in hopes of finding a negotiated solution regarding North Korea’s pulling out of Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003), six-party negotiations were initiated which again came to a stalemate after Pyongyang pulled out in 2009. So, there is a sense of deja-vu as North-Korea once again shows the willingness to come to the negotiating table with the concerned parties. The script of the present scenario can be seen as a repetition of the past but, the motive behind the benevolent approach of Kim can be speculated to have manifold reasons.

Breathing Space from the Strangulating Sanctions

Economic sanctions are not a rarity for North Korea after it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. These sanctions were tightened in 2017 and with it’s all weather ally, China, actively supporting this time, compelled Kim Jong-un to embark on his 2018 ‘charm offensive’. There have been glimpses in the new year’s speech of Kim and the 2018 Parliamentary budget report indicating the damage the sanctions have made on the country’s economy. The North Korean supreme leader in his new year’s speech alluded that sanctions had affected the country’s economy. Likewise, the Premier of North Korea, Pak Pong Ju’s speech during the 6th session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on 11 April 2018 mentioned ‘externally imposed obstacles’ twice, referring to “unprecedented massive challenges” and “vicious sanctions and pressure manoeuvres.” Both leaders acknowledged that economic sanctions were strangulating the North Korean economy, and that might have compelled Kim to rethink his approach, towards its southern neighbour in particular.

Victory on the Nuclear Front

Five years after announcing his Byungjin Policy in 2013, Kim Jong-un has declared North Korea as a nuclear state. Byungjin policy is his signature national strategy and, the successor to his father’s Songun policy (1994). Under Byungjin, Kim pledged to the success of North Korea’s parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrence and economic development. Now that he claims the successful completion of making North Korea a nuclear state, shifting his focus to economic development seems the only logical choice. The transition of North Korea into a de facto nuclear state has also increased the confidence of Kim in global power standing. The idea of negotiating on an equal footing because of the nuclear weapons can also be considered as a valid motivating factor for Kim to shift to diplomatic negotiations, and aim to pressurize the opposing party agree to his favourable terms.

Laying the Groundwork for Reforms?

Kim Jong-un has in the past tried the ‘stick’ version of diplomacy by hurling abuses and threatening the US and maybe now, equipped with a sense of security because of the nuclear arsenal, he is shifting to ‘carrot’ version of diplomacy, desiring the end result to be, the acceptance of North Korean regime. In his six years of rule, if anything, Kim Jong-un has proved that he has ‘plans’. Starting from Byungjin Policy, aggressive pursuance of nuclear weapons and eradicating any possible competition, Kim is strategically bringing reforms in the regime beneath the guise of continuity. The survival of the regime is of paramount importance to the leader and Kim knows it can be achieved only when the regime’s legitimacy is not under external threat.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Panmunjom summit was definitely a historic and impressive day in the history of the Peninsula. From smiling faces of both the leaders, to the promises of a “new era of peace” (pyeonghwaui saeloun sidae) the summit was a success in terms of public diplomacy. However, with big powers like China and United States involved, shaping a new era of peace will not be easy, especially when the objectives of the involved parties are not in tandem with each other’s. The difference of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” stated by South Korea in accordance with US, and Kim Jong-un’s “phased and synchronised denuclearisation” can and probably will be the cause of friction in the momentum of this positive development.

This budding North-South bonhomie will be further put to test in the upcoming Kim-Trump meeting, to be held in Singapore next month. With both Kim and Trump having a flair for unpredictability and aggressive approach, it would be interesting to observe how the two leaders work towards ‘solving’ decades-long conflict.


[1] The two leaders adopted a joint peace declaration after the three-day meeting, agreeing to work towards independent unification and humanitarian and economic cooperation. For more, see:

China in Africa: An Image Makeover is Underway

Dr. Veda Vaidyanathan, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

It was late afternoon in Ethiopia, I scrambled onto a bus filled with University students and found a seat at the back, near the window. As the bus meandered through traffic in Addis Ababa, the noises of the city was drowned out by the loud Amharic music playing on the radio. A young girl wanted to know why Indian women wore bindi’s – when I handed her a few packets from my reserve gift collection – she asked me if I could give her Bollywood DVD’s instead. An hour or two into our drive, the bus slowed down, trudged uphill and finally stopped. Without a groan or complaint, people picked up their bags and began to alight. “We need to get off the bus and walk to the top of the hill”, someone explained as he walked past.

There we were- in the stunning Ethiopian countryside, a horde of people, some quiet others singing, making our way to the top of the hill. “Does this happen every time?” I asked the student accompanying me for the trip. “Oh yes, it’s a Chinese bus.” He replied matter-of-factly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prodded. “Oh its terrible quality, it has a weak engine, the chairs and the cushions will come off soon too” he replied grinning. I asked him why we did not take another bus, one which had a stronger engine perhaps, “but there aren’t any other buses” he responded.

As we reached the last hairpin bend, there were large Chinese characters painted on a granite wall. As I stopped to take a picture, they explained that the well-laid tar road was new and built by a Chinese company. It used to be a narrow, uneven dirt road, dangerous during the rains and it took a lot of time to reach the villages on the top.  As we spoke, a woman in a beautiful white habesha kemi walked beside us carrying a pot of water. That journey, I assume, from the water source at the bottom of the hill to the top, was made easier by the broad winding new road.

Many instances like these provided a glimpse into the layered and complicated perception of China in Africa today. As Chinese migrants and companies make their presence felt across the cityscapes and country sides, the African attitude about them is quietly evolving. While acknowledging that Chinese exports to Africa are of inferior quality or that working conditions in Chinese companies are harsh or frustration with Chinese bosses who don’t take into account local sensibilities- conversations with young Africans in Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond highlight a palpable unease. However despite a range of criticism levelled against Chinese firms and violence targeting Chinese managers, most often than not- China is viewed as a provider of options. Sure, the Chinese bus was sub-standard, but at least there was a road and a bus!

Afrobarometer- a pan African, nonpartisan research network conducted a survey in 2016 of 36 African countries about China in Africa and concluded that “Africans rank the United States and China No. 1 and 2, respectively, as development models for their own countries.” Interestingly, in three of five African regions, “China either matches or surpasses the United States in popularity as a development model.” Additionally, “In terms of their current influence, the two countries are outpaced only by Africa’s former colonial powers.”

This shift in perception is by no means abrupt; Africa has been on China’s foreign policy radar with a twenty eight year old tradition of the Chinese foreign minister visiting Africa, in addition to a range of senior officials regularly travelling to the continent. Development Reimagined, the first Kenyan wholly foreign owned enterprise in China, recently published their first infographic on Chinese leaders traveling to Africa. According to their study, the Chinese leadership has made 79 visits to 43 different African countries over the past 10 years and no other country can match this degree of diplomatic exchange with countries in the continent.

Beyond the Chinese ‘Charm Offensive’, data from the AidData dataset – curated by a research lab at the College of William & Mary – point out that seven of the top 10 recipients of Chinese Aid are in Africa. They also drew attention to the fact that contrary to popular perception, Chinese ODA generally goes to poorer countries and it does not appear to go disproportionately to authoritarian or corrupt regimes in the continent.

In addition to Aid, since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and in 2016, bilateral trade between China and Africa was valued at USD149.1 billion, Chinese non-financial direct investment in the continent amounted to USD3 billion and the contractual value of newly signed contracted projects reached USD65.2 billion.

The language utilized by China while crafting its policies for Africa have strong moralistic undertones indicating selflessness and altruism. While some Chinese scholars agree with this premise, others insist that it is a mutually beneficial ‘win-win partnership’. African scholars remain divided with some viewing China as having increased their options, while others remain wary of their increasing influence.

Regardless of the motivations, fact remains that a new generation of Africans are becoming increasingly comfortable with a powerful China and the ‘China model’ of growth and development. Not only has China has become the most popular destination for Anglophone African students studying abroad, there are over 40 Confucius Institutes (CI) in Africa. A recent Quartz report mentioned that at a Mandarin speaking proficiency test conducted in Lusaka, a Zambian student was asked what her dream was, and she claimed “Wode mengxiang shi Zhongguo” (“My dream is China”). This acceptance of China and aspiration to be like China, the result of years of Beijing’s proactive engagement in the continent, could perhaps be one of the biggest successes for China in its contemporary foreign policy.