Multifaceted Relations between South Korea and India

Ankita Bharadwaj
June 16, 2019


Image Courtesy:

India and South Korea (henceforth Korea) share multifaceted relations since a long time.  Since last three decades, several similarities can be observed between these growing economies of Asia, such as commitment to the values of democracy, open society and liberal economic order. With Modi completing one successful term and winning vibrantly in his second term as the Prime Minister of India, gives the people of the country, more hope to expect several initiatives like more vibrant Act East Policy, various infrastructural projects like India Thailand Trilateral Highway, Border Trade initiatives etc, to strengthen the relations with the countries of South East Asia, which including South Korea.

When observed from the context of the Indo-Pacific region, India and Korea have undertaken action oriented approach in improving and upgrading their bilateral engagement with other counterparts. India’s major ‘Act East Policy’ and Korea’s ‘New Southern Policy’ share similar ideas on undertaking more ‘people-centric’ programmes and framing a multilateral economic diplomatic framework to cultivate relations with ASEAN and other South Asian countries.  The Act East Policy focuses on 3 C’s- Culture, Connectivity and Commerce; while New Southern Policy focuses on 3 P’s- Peace, Prosperity and People. Through connectivity trade will flourish thereby connecting people and their cultures, thus bringing peace and prosperity into the region; thereby seen its complementary nature.

For the first time, Korea has undertaken a foreign policy initiative towards India. President of Korea, Moon Jae In’s visit to India in July 2018, was the longest visit by any leader of the two countries. In his speech at the recent East Asia Summit, November, 2018; President Moon referred India as Korea’s ‘key partner’ in political and economic aspects. The speech emphasized crucial shift in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Both the countries are working continuously towards a new 2+2 format diplomatic mechanism. If operationalized, South Korea would become the third country to hold such a dialogue with India, after Japan and the United States. Modi’s visit to Seoul, before India’s national elections; laid emphasis on strengthening a long term strategic partnership with Korea.

The shift in Korea’s policy from traditional allies such as China and USA towards India and ASEAN is not without reasons. First Seoul perceives New Delhi and the countries in ASEAN as prospective new economic partners whose markets have many unexploited potentials. By associating more with other South Asian countries like India, Myanmar, Thailand etc; South Korea intends to reduce its over dependence on its traditional allies. Secondly. Seoul intends to make a subtle move towards joining the essence of ‘Indo-Pacific’ to contain the ‘China’ by collaborating with the other countries. In Korea, rise of China as an economic power is perceived a threat rather than an opportunity.  Also economically, after being suffocated for around 16 months by China’s ‘doghouse diplomacy’ in 2017, which was retaliation by China against Korea for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD); Korea felt the need for new alternative engagements.

However since 1991, India has been taking small steps and leaps for any kind of initiatives which would engage more with the South East Asian countries and the China factor too being one of the reasons. In the past Korea, have taken various important policy approaches towards India; like Sunshine policy, New Asia Initiative and Northeast Asia Peace Initiative. But success couldn’t be seen on the bilateral arena between India and Korea, as Korea perceived then, that India was not powerful enough to influence politics in Asia.

However, perceptions changed after Modi’s pragmatic attitude in improving foreign policy of the country with Korea. Modi’s interaction with Korean Business leaders,  thrice within a span of a year in 2018,  appears intentional and positive towards the engagements between India and Korea on trade and investments. Modi calls these visits and interactions intentional because he wishes more Korean businesses to turn their attention to India. The realisation of ‘Indian Dream’, i.e to make India economically developed; is possible if India works with likeminded partners such as Korea. Under the Act East Policy, India signed various trade agreements among which the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, with Korea was most important. The agreement led to a turnover of Korean investments in India of 6 billion dollars. India is among the top 10 trading partners of Korea and is the 6th largest export destination for Korean Goods.

Modi, in the South Korea Business Symposium, in February, 2019 highlight how India is a ‘land of opportunities’ to investors in Korea. This emphasizes the bigger intentions of improving bilateral relations of India with Korea. Under Korea Plus and Invest India initiatives, various investment opportunities are given to the various Korean and Indian brands. Over 600 Korean companies have invested in India and the numbers rising every year.  The encouraging and  inclusive  nature of  Act East Policy and New Southern policy  led both India and Korea to go beyond trade and cooperate on matters of countering terrorism, infrastructure development, ports development, marine and food processing, start-ups, and also to focus on small and medium enterprises. Both the countries have collaborated on defence matters as well as made a defence industrial corridor roadmap based on development of defence technology and co-production. Also, free movement of Indians and Koreans is made possible. Koreans can easily visit India with ‘Visa on Arrival’, while in Korea Indians can avail the ‘Group Visa’, without hustle.

In the contemporary moment in global politics, where the United States foreign policy is capricious and unpredictable while China’s foreign policy is making purposeful moves towards global domination, it is important that the South Korea-India partnership grows and consolidates through advantages of collaboration which can and thus prove to be a big step in maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

*** The author is a research scholar at Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University ***