An interesting report in The Hindu, with the headline “India reaches out, wants to upgrade ties with North Korea,” caught my eye yesterday. The report noted that India was taking a significant step forward in its relations with Pyongyang by upgrading its bilateral ties.
India’s relations with North Korea aren’t normally in the press. They received some attention earlier this year when North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited New Delhi for a series of meeting. Overall, India’s relations with North Korea are cordial but limited—for a range of reasons, including North Korea’s occasional chumminess with Pakistan and South Korea’s reservations. An upgrade in relations would be a significant move in India’s eastward foreign policy. So what’s really going on?
First, the details: The Hindu reports that India’s minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, participated “in an event marking the North Korean national Independence Day in New Delhi.” Rijiju was, per the report, “nominated by the Ministry of External Affairs to represent the Indian government in the official event.” The minister told The Hindu that relations between India and North Korea were “going to change.” “North Korea is an independent country and a member of the United Nations and we should have good bilateral trade ties,” he said. The Hindu notes that Rijiju was careful to clarify that the decision to attend wasn’t a made in haste but is a considered diplomatic move:
We have been discussing inside the government ways and means of upgrading bilateral ties with North Korea ever since the North Korean Foreign Minister visited Delhi last April. We feel that there should not be the usual old hurdles and suspicion in bilateral ties as North Korea is an independent country and also a member of the United Nations. A relationship based on greater trade and commerce between two sides is the way ahead.
In addition to Rijiju, another name appears throughout the report. Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist[CPI(M)]), was in attendance as well. Yechury, in 2013, led a three-member parliamentary delegation to North Korea. Since at least the 1980s, the CPI(M) and North Korea’s ruling People’s Party have developed inter-party ties.
It’s unclear if, as Rijiju says, India and North Korea are truly poised for some sort of major paradigm shift in their bilateral ties. Sending Rijiju, a state minister, clearly isn’t the strongest diplomatic signal from the Indian side. Sending a representative from the Ministry of External Affairs, possibly even the external affairs minister, would signal additional seriousness. Rijiju, however, is an interesting choice. He hails from Arunachal Pradesh—an Indian state claimed almost in its entirety by China—and, as I’ve noted before, has been a vocal proponent of the Indian government bolstering its position along the disputed India-China border. His attendance at the event could suggest that New Delhi is positioning itself to seize on the growing rift between Pyongyang and Beijing. Yechury notes told The Hindu as much himself: “Given the China factor and Mr. Rijiju’s origin in Arunachal Pradesh, it was a good decision to send him as the Minister for the event.”
Of course, another possible explanation for Rijiju’s attendance could have to do with anodyne domestic political dynamics. Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the CPI(M) are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Rijiju’s presence could be tied to some sort of political quid pro quo. The BJP and CPI(M) have recently been at odds over a range of issues.
Taking Rijiju’s statement that this is in fact a well-considered foreign policy move at face value isn’t entirely ludicrous. Though trade between India and North Korea is modest and balanced in New Delhi’s favor, North Korea is a mineral rich country and India is a major importer of minerals. Though North Korea’s lack of access to normal international financial networks makes trade tricky, New Delhi could position itself to trade goods with North Korea for in-kind payments of minerals and rare-earth metals. North Korea, despite being endowed with a treasure trove of minerals and rare earth, still hasn’t quite figured out how to capitalize on these resources. China remains the main player in the North Korean mineral market and leverages its special historical relationship with Pyongyang to invest in the country.
However, India needs to consider that upgrading its relationship with North Korea, while potentially valuable for economic reasons, will have diplomatic costs. An “upgrade” of the sort Rijiju describes would entail a softening of India’s language on North Korea’s nuclear program. New Delhi has seen its ties with the United States, South Korea, and Japan grow massively over the past decade. Each of these states, to varying extents, treats North Korea as a global pariah, unworthy of “normal” diplomatic treatment until it at least demonstrates an interest in negotiating the future of its nuclear program in good faith. New Delhi has traditionally had a propensity to avoid letting its bilateral diplomatic relationships develop dependencies, but the era of nonalignment is far behind it now. With Narendra Modi’s energetic new take on India’s “Look East” policy—now an “Act East” policy—there is all the more reason for India to avoid offsetting its other relationships by granting Pyongyang more diplomatic attention than it deserves.
To be fair, there are other states in Asia that regularly interact “normally” with North Korea without facing isolation or international scrutiny—Indonesia and Mongolia are two examples. India, however, seeks global leadership as a responsible stakeholder state. Upgrading ties with North Korea as it announces that its nuclear facility at Yongbyon is back to operational status and just weeks after the Korean peninsula returned from the brink of conflict does not mesh with that objective. New Delhi can’t go back to a meandering and non-aligned approach to East Asia. So far, under the Modi government, India has been clear about its burgeoning partnerships in the Asia-Pacific with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and ASEAN states. Upgrading ties with North Korea may be a manifestation of the Modi government’s “Act East” policy, but it just isn’t in line with New Delhi’s broader regional approach.