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.