Speculation surrounding the health and wellbeing of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was at a high in the weeks prior to his sudden reappearance. This alarm was understandable given the outsized role of the dictator in North Korea’s regime and the potential consequences of his demise on regional and global geopolitics. However, while “great men” have been key actors in political dramas on the world stage, they have not mattered as much to the currents of history as is commonly assumed. The state’s “nuclear ideology” (Juche) is likely to outlive the Kim family, much less Kim Jong Un specifically. Our attention, therefore, must move away from concerns about North Korea’s leadership dynamics, and toward the more relevant and intractable issue of brokering peace on the nuclear Korean peninsula.
On this issue, India’s absence is notable. New Delhi has not been a participant in peace talks involving the two Koreas (such as the Six-Party Talks). While India’s increasing heft in world politics has resulted in an incremental widening of its sphere of interest and influence beyond the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca, New Delhi so far has not ventured to reclaim its Cold War pedigree as a peace broker. India has only recently evolved a more comprehensive military and economic engagement plan in the immediate Indian Ocean Region — where it now claims to be a “net security provider.”
It seems appropriate for a rising Asian power to involve itself in the resolution of the Korean conflict. After all, India already played an important role during the Korean War between 1950-1954. While non-alignment precluded direct military support to either party, Nehru’s India did perform a prominent mediatory function, and actively sought to provide humanitarian and medical assistance. The 60th Para Field Ambulance, a medical unit of the Indian Army consisting of 346 personnel, looked after 200,000 wounded soldiers and carried out 2,300 field surgeries in its three and a half years of service. In 1952, it was an Indian resolution on Korea that was adopted at the UN (with unanimous non-Soviet support) that ended the fighting. Later, in 1953, led by Major General S.S.P. Thorat, India also sent 6,000 soldiers as part of a Custodial Force to oversee the repatriation of about 20,000 prisoners of war (POWs). Additionally, V.K. Krishna Menon’s proposal to form a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission was also accepted and General K.S. Thimayya served as its chairman.
To a large extent, India’s ability to carve out a niche for itself during the Korean crisis, despite its material weaknesses, came from its ability to speak to all parties. Since India had no vested interests, and it had tenuously proven its neutral credentials through its sponsorship of U.N. resolutions, all relevant stakeholders were willing to engage with its counsel. Typically, in these types of crisis situations there are two hazards: asymmetric information and misperception. As an unofficial mediator, India ensured that these two factors did not lead to a nuclear war. In particular, Indian diplomats acted as information conduits — relaying and manipulating information flows between Washington and Beijing to ensure de-escalation and compromise. To commemorate India’s peacemaker role, a Korean War memorial is now being built in New Delhi.
The intent here is not to rehash historical triumphs. While India has transitioned from non-alignment to multi-alignment, it continues to have the ability to engage with a wide range of states, and can therefore positively contribute to brokering peace on the Korean Peninsula. While it is commonly known that India-U.S. relations have improved significantly since the turn of the century, India also continues to maintain strong dialogue with Beijing. In fact, as Kate Sullivan and Rosemary Foot argue, China and India have had complementary voting patterns at the U.N. on security issues such as “humanitarian intervention, responsible sovereignty (R2P), as well as in the functional area of peacekeeping.”
Similarly, along with prosperous economic ties with South Korea, India has also had a lesser known but somewhat friendly relationship with North Korea. The UN-initiated Center for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific in Dehradun has trained at least 30 North Korean students since 1996. Graduates of this institute have gone on to occupy many prominent positions in Pyongyang, and include the North Korean embassy’s first secretary to India, Hong Yong Il. In 2015, the then-Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, at the North Korean Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi, expressed interest in improving bilateral trade and commerce ties. Outside of China, India is already North Korea’s second largest trading partner and the latter has regularly received humanitarian assistance from India under the UN World Food Program. Reciprocally, when a tsunami struck India in 2004, North Korea donated $30,000 to India as a goodwill gesture. More recently, in 2018, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh visited North Korea to discuss “political, regional, economic, educational and cultural cooperation between the two countries.”
Thus, India finds itself in an extraordinarily unique and influential diplomatic position. It enjoys close ties with, and the goodwill of, all the parties to the Korean dispute. On the Korean Peninsula, India can help forge a “new agenda of working-level talks marked by achievable aims, meaningful mutual concessions, and establishment of direct communications via liaison offices,” which Bonnie Kristian argued was the necessary next step for resolving tensions. Certainly, this does not imply a swift resolution of the problem of denuclearization or demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula. However, India’s participation as a mediator could: (1) facilitate the flow of information and increase the efficacy of bilateral communication; (2) encourage summitry, dialogue and confidence-building measures; and (3) provide a neutral third party who could carry out monitoring functions in case of an agreement. From a narrower vantage point, such an initiative would reaffirm India’s bone fides as a responsible stakeholder in international society, and significantly improve its system-level prestige.
India has already expressed concern over North Korea’s nuclear tests, and negatively appraised its consequences for regional peace and security. However, if it seeks to play a more prominent role in the distribution of global public goods like security, India must step forward and embrace wider responsibilities.
Ameya Pratap Singh is a DPhil Candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.