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What the Trump-Kim Summit Means for India

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The Pulse

What the Trump-Kim Summit Means for India

The wisdom of Delhi’s insistence on “dialogue diplomacy” with North Korea is finally being acknowledged.

What the Trump-Kim Summit Means for India
Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

India’s stance on the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit has no direct bearing on the talks, nor is it likely to be much different from what Delhi had already iterated. However, the very fact of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi shows that Delhi’s continuous reinforcement on “dialogue diplomacy” — which most major powers including the United States, had failed to appreciate earlier — is a triumph.

The world had overlooked the importance of both “dialogue” and “diplomacy” in the Korean Peninsula for many years now, contrary to India’s continuous advocacy that dialogue diplomacy should be the real pathway to attain peace. The prospects of “dialogue diplomacy” in the Korean Peninsula remained bleak with North Korea’s withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks in 2009, and Pyongyang’s continuous missile and nuclear tests ever since. China, North Korea’s lone military ally, had also emphasized “dialogue” repeatedly, but Beijing’s sincerity was always questionable. After all, China continued to offer a strategic shield to North Korea’s continuous missile and nuclear tests by resisting and delaying sanctions and measures at the United Nation Security Council (UNSC). The years after the Six-Party Talks did not encourage an environment that would be conducive for “dialogue diplomacy” in the region. Segregating Pyongyang through sanctions became the preferred measure to find solutions to North Korea conundrum.

A departure was, however, made from isolating to engaging with Pyongyang starting in 2018. Inter-Korean dialogues and diplomacy with the Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea introduced a flexible foreign policy approach to engage with North Korea, and eventually U.S. President Donald Trump held his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018. This week’s Vietnam summit, the second one between Trump and Kim, raised the significance of “dialogue diplomacy” as the most appropriate medium for peace prospects, precisely what India, as a non-critical actor, had always advocated for.

This is reflected in India’s official statements released in response to the inter-Korean summits and the U.S.-North Korea summits. Welcoming the Panmunjom and Pyongyang inter-Korean summits of April and September 2018, India stated that the region requires “continued engagement” to manage tensions and that pursuing dialogue and diplomacy remained key to ensuring peace and stability in the region.  During his visit to South Korea from February 21-22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the Indian government’s “strong support” to the “dialogue process” between North Korea and South Korea, and between the U.S. and North Korea.

It is not difficult to comprehend why India had always advocated for dialogue diplomacy over North Korea impasse. Practically, it offers Delhi the political space to engage in stronger outreach in the Korean Peninsula, enhancing India’s Act East Policy. However, to Delhi, the most immediate concern has been the proliferation linkages between North Korea and Pakistan, with the possible consent of China. In fact, over the last decade, Delhi has used every possible official outlet to express this concern. India advocates that any prospect of “complete” denuclearisation must address these proliferation linkages. The aim for India is not only to express Delhi’s concern through the medium of dialogue but equally to stay engaged with North Korea, by gaining an assurance from Pyongyang that it will not pursue any anti-India nuclear activity in India’s neighborhood. A press statement dated May 16, 2018, released after V.K. Singh, India’s minister of state for external affairs, visited Pyongyang makes this sufficiently clear.

What makes Delhi’s stance triumphant, however, is the engagement prospects with Pyongyang that the world is currently envisaging. Kim Jong Un’s 2018 visit to Singapore and now to Vietnam for the second U.S.-North Korea summit is evidence that the world is open to engaging with Pyongyang rather than abandoning it. This vindicates India’s stance since Delhi has always advocated that staying engaged with Pyongyang is the best way to attain peace and stability in the region.

Previously, Delhi’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea had, in fact, been a matter of international discord and scrutiny by many countries, including India’s strategic partner, the United States. It was always a topic of conversation between the United States and India. The same was even noted in their September 2018 inaugural “two-plus-two” ministerial dialogue, which overlapped with the inter-Korean dialogue process.

Delhi had fallen short for many years in winning Washington’s confidence over its sustained engagement with North Korea. Indeed, Delhi’s relationship with Pyongyang was under severe surveillance in light of the mounting UNSC sanctions over the last few years. India was pressured to minimize or cut its diplomatic contacts with North Korea and only supply necessary food and medicines adhering to the UNSC sanctions. The pressure was so great that the Indian government had to issue an Official Gazette order of the Ministry of External Affairs dated April 21, 2017, not only to adhere and implement the UNSC resolutions but also to convince the international community that India respects the UNSC resolutions and sanctions. India was even required to take strong measures to “prevent specialized teaching or training” to North Korean nationals on subjects such as computer science, engineering, advanced physics, computer simulations, etc. Delhi had to suspend scientific and technological cooperation with North Korean personnel in the face of the mounting international pressure.

For India, having diplomatic contact with Pyongyang and a diplomatic mission in North Korea was a strategic necessity to address its concerns regarding the proliferation linkages of North Korea with India’s neighborhood. India is the only major country in the world that has long cherished an “equi-cordial” relation with both Koreas, North and South. Delhi was never prepared to sacrifice its diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang, which it had nurtured for five decades now. India was rather quite forthright over the significance of having a diplomatic channel with North Korea at a time when the world wanted to isolate Pyongyang. Delhi was not only categorical about continuing its engagement with North Korea but also labelled its own Embassy as a channel of dialogue and negotiation for the United States with Pyongyang. This was clearly noticed in the Indian external affairs minister’s media statement on May 31, 2018 that the United States must see the presence of Indian mission in Pyongyang as “their friend country’s embassy,” which could be useful for future American dialogue with North Korea.

Barring a progressive, commercial oriented relationship, India’s relations with South Korea also did not witness much advancement all these years amid the doubts that Seoul held due to India’s diplomatic connections with Pyongyang. Though Seoul did not ever clearly express its concern publicly, India’s relations with South Korea have mostly remained cold despite many promises to enhance bilateral ties. With Modi receiving the Seoul Peace Prize recently, Seoul seems to have realized the significance of India’s engagement with North Korea, and that it is more to enhance peace than pursue politics.

The Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim this week reiterates the significance of “dialogue diplomacy.” With this, the fall of North Korea is no longer a breaking story to reckon with, nor does the world seem to be diffident about engagement with the Kim regime in Pyongyang any more. Even though a permanent solution is still a long way off, the world has started realizing that continuous engagement with Pyongyang is the best way to find a solution to North Korea’s nuclear impasse, making Delhi’s stance triumphant. The time has come to revisit and recount India’s perspective toward the Korean Peninsula to promote peace and partnerships.

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre coordinator for East Asia at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia. This piece is a part of author’s ongoing study on “India and the Two Koreas: Between Peace and Partnerships.”