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North Korea: Time for a Re-Think?; By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S  Fortnightly Column No. F015 /2015

The visit to the North Korean Embassy by a Minister of State of the Modi government has naturally started a debate on whether indeed it is a good time to re-start to what has been referred to a frosty  relations between India and North Korea. In fact academics and analysts of the Korean peninsula have been making the point that the reclusive regime in Pyongyang has been showing signs of wanting to open out to the rest of the world. And one such indication was the rare visit to India earlier this year of North Korean Foreign Minister.

If Pyongyang really wishes to reach out to India or for that matter to other world capitals that should be taken at face value. In this day and age of globalization and revolutions in information technology, North Korea cannot be just the only state in the world to have shut its doors and thrown the keys away. Further one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, bilaterally and multilaterally, Pyongyang is really paying a price for its obduracy and bellicose behavior in East Asia, especially with respect to South Korea and Japan. Perhaps it has dawned on the North Korean leader that the time has come to move on.

In terms of India the point is being made that the two countries have much to gain in trade and commerce. North Korea desperately wants food grains; and the country is said to have the world’s largest deposit of minerals and rare earth metals which is critical to the Indian electronics sector. Both New Delhi and Pyongyang would seem to benefit if commerce does indeed get off the ground. At present North Korea is too dependant on China for food and fuel but this is not much of a choice as Beijing continues to defy United Nations sanctions regime. But of late Beijing has shown the limits of its reaching out especially in the context of Pyongyang provoking crisis in East Asia.

One argument is that should New Delhi upgrade its ties with Pyongyang, that could have a negative reaction from South Korea. Not necessarily so. In spite of all the tough talk between North and South Korea and when the two countries have gone to the extreme extent of shutting down avenues of cooperation, Seoul has generally been unwilling to shut off all channels of communication. And the general mood of the public opinion is that the two sides should continue talking as there is a glimmer of a hope that re-unification is still a possibility.

In fact even a country like the United States would not be too averse for India to move closer to North Korea and for more than one reason. It is not as if it is going to happen overnight, but should New Delhi and Pyongyang get closer, that would lessen the latter’s dependence on China. Further a country like the United States would be better placed to knowing where North Korea is coming from as it gets closer with India.

For a long time India-North Korea relations had been held hostage to North Korea’s relations with Pakistan, notably on the nuclear and missile fronts. But this transfer and peddling of dangerous technologies could be seen more at the bidding of China than North Korea per se. If India and North Korea were indeed to get closer over a period of time, that would indeed be  beneficial to India as Pyongyang would be better placed to see the compulsions and constraints of India and the contributing factors to these.

In international relations there is an age old adage: there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Few believed that after normalization of relations in 1995 the United States and Vietnam could be so close today economically and strategically. What about the United States and Cuba after all those decades of eyeball-to-eyeball hostility that even involved the erstwhile Soviet Union? And more recently, how about United States and Iran after nearly three decades of ruptured relations? Who knows, President Barack Obama may probably extend a handshake to President Kim Jong Un prior to his stepping down in 2017!  That being the case what should hold back India from moving ahead with North Korea? Nothing,  in the author’s view.

(A former senior journalist with The Hindu based in Chennai, Singapore and Washington, Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami currently Heads the Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communism at SRM University, Chennai. He can be reached at Views expressed here are personal.)

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