On July 7, 2017, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released a strongly worded statement condemning North Korea’s July 4 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch. In their statement, Indian MEA officials described Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and nuclear proliferation links as posing a grave threat to India’s security and international peace. The Indian MEA also called on all international supporters of North Korea to be held accountable for their actions.
India’s strident condemnations of North Korean belligerence follow a string of anti-Pyongyang actions authorized by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In April, India aligned with United Nations (UN) stipulations by banning all trade with North Korea, with the exception of shipments of food and medicine. This decision brought an abrupt end to a decade of growth in India-North Korea trade links.
While India possesses little leverage over North Korea, these policy shifts have profound implications for both Pyongyang and New Delhi. As India and North Korea have a long history of trade links and cordial diplomatic ties, India’s implementation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang could slow the progress of North Korea’s ballistic missile program and weaken its economy. In addition, India’s policy shift on North Korea will help Modi strengthen India’s relationships with South Korea and the United States, increasing New Delhi’s diplomatic profile and access to foreign investment.
The Impact of India’s Suspension of Trade with North Korea
Even though India was a less significant trade partner for Pyongyang than China or Russia, New Delhi’s decision to suspend trade links deals a significant blow to North Korea’s ballistic missile program. The Center for Space Science and Technology in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP) located in Dehradun, India was one of the few institutes in the world that provided technical training for North Korean students after the UN issued its first set of sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program in 2006.
Before the UN discovered the CSSTEAP’s sanctions violations in 2016, the institute provided at least 30 North Korean scientists with training courses that could greatly assist the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. UN officials were especially alarmed by courses offering satellite communications training and instructions for launch vehicle testing to North Koreans.
While Indian officials have downplayed the links between these courses and WMD development, the North Korean government’s appointment of Paek Chong-ho, a CSSTEAP alumnus, to a senior leadership position in the agency governing Pyongyang’s 2012 satellite launch, gives credibility to UN officials’ concerns.
In addition to the collapse of technology-sharing links, the breakdown of economic ties between India and North Korea will make Pyongyang’s hard currency shortage even more acute. According to Indian government data, India was North Korea’s third largest trade partner in 2015-16, exporting $111 million in goods to North Korea while importing $88 million from Pyongyang.
The loss of these trade links will further increase North Korea’s economic dependency on China, at a time when Pyongyang’s relationship with Beijing has become increasingly tense. The suspension of New Delhi-Pyongyang trade links will also have diplomatic reverberations. As India welcomed North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong to New Delhi in 2015 and has historically abstained from UN resolutions criticizing North Korea’s human rights abuses, the loss of India as a diplomatic partner will heighten the DPRK’s international isolation.
India’s Relationships With South Korea and the United States
Even though India has historically expressed rhetorical opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program, New Delhi’s increasingly hawkish stance toward Pyongyang has caused South Korean policymakers to view India as a potential ally in their efforts to contain North Korean aggression. The recent uptick in trade links and security cooperation between Seoul and New Delhi demonstrates that cooperation with South Korea on containing Pyongyang has significant benefits for India’s economy and regional influence.
India’s attractiveness as an investment destination for South Korean businesses was strikingly revealed by Kia Motors’ April 27 decision to build a $1.1 billion factory in Andhra Pradesh. As Kia Motors has been forced to scale back its new investment projects in China due to rising anti-Korean sentiments and slowing Chinese economic growth, Kia’s relocation to India is a major economic victory over Beijing.
The South Korean government followed in Kia’s footsteps on June 15, by inviting Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to Seoul and signing $10 billion in infrastructure deals with India. As a result of these deals, South Korea became an Official Development Assistance (ODA) contributor to India, and cemented its status as one of India’s most important economic partners outside the G7.
India’s willingness to present itself as an ally against North Korean belligerence has also convinced South Korea to expand its military cooperation with India. On April 21, India signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea to cooperate on shipbuilding for military use. South Korea has also agreed to manufacture K9 Varja T-tracked self-propelled artillery guns for the Indian army.
As Russia and China have also reached out diplomatically to South Korean President Moon Jae-in since his election in May, India’s security deals with Seoul ensure that New Delhi can directly compete with these two great powers on the Asia-Pacific diplomatic stage. Recognition of India as a legitimate stakeholder in the Korean peninsula will increase perceptions of its diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific, and strengthen New Delhi’s burgeoning partnerships with Vietnam and Malaysia.
India’s decision to suspend trade links with North Korea has also helped improve New Delhi’s relationship with the United States. After Modi’s June 27 meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, an official joint statement from the U.S. and Indian governments highlighted both countries’ condemnations of North Korean aggression, and laid the groundwork for bilateral cooperation between Washington and New Delhi on containing North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
India and the United States are uniquely compatible partners against North Korean aggression, as both countries have serious concerns about nuclear proliferation emanating from Pyongyang. Pakistan’s long history of sharing nuclear technology with North Korea has increased concerns in India about Pyongyang’s ICBM advances reaching Islamabad. The United States is similarly concerned about collaboration between North Korea and Iran, as Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missiles closely resemble Pyongyang’s Nodong-1 rockets.
In addition to New Delhi and Washington’s shared perceptions of North Korea as a common threat, India has showcased its compliance with UN sanctions against Pyongyang to the United States, to demonstrate that it is a more credible Asian diplomatic partner than China. As the Trump administration has made containing North Korean belligerence its chief foreign policy priority in recent months, Indian policymakers hope that cooperation with the United States against the DPRK could cause Washington to reciprocate with a harsher stance toward Pakistan.
Even though India’s shifting position on North Korea is unlikely to meaningfully impact Pyongyang’s conduct in the short-term, the implications of New Delhi’s efforts on North Korea’s economy and India’s relationships with South Korea and the United States are considerable. If India can successfully contribute to the containment of North Korean aggression, its diplomatic stature in the Asia-Pacific region will increase significantly, strengthening New Delhi’s long-term aspirations of being a viable competitor with China for regional influence.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.