Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 11, 2020
Reinvigorating India-South Korea relations: Can Buddhism, Bollywood, K-Pop and Democracy help?


India-Republic of Korea (RoK) relations have made rapid strides in recent years. While it may have taken New Delhi and Seoul many decades to reinvigorate their relationship, the two are today in the midst of a multidimensional and transformative tie, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Moon Jae-in.<1> Modi’s Act East Policy (AEP) and Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy (NSP)—which gives primacy to the acceleration of RoK’s economic and strategic relations with India—both have led to a convergence of interests and energies between the two countries. This has had a visible impact on the widening of bilateral trade and commerce, apart from the alignment of their strategic interests in the Northeast Asian region. Less attention, however, has been given to other developments with regard to political, cultural and people-to-people relations that have deepened over the last few years. Indeed, with no unpleasant historical memories between them nor geopolitical rivalries, there is limitless potential in this critical relationship.

Political and Diplomatic Relations: An Overview

It may be recalled that India played a crucial and positive role in Korean affairs soon after the latter’s independence in 1945. India’s K P S Menon served as Chairman of the nine-member United Nations (UN) Commission that was set up in 1947 to oversee elections in Korea. During the Korean War (1950-53), the warring sides accepted a UN resolution sponsored by India calling for a ceasefire; one was declared on 27 July 1953. The relationship, however, would remain dormant for many decades for various reasons, and it was only in 1962 that the two countries established consular relations. This was then upgraded to Ambassador-level in 1973. This development caused a little impact on trade and commercial relations, let alone political and people-to-people relations. Even then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s much talked about Look East Policy (LEP) in the 1990s failed to make any visible traction in India-RoK relations. An important visit by then Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam at a critical juncture to Seoul in February 2006 opened the door for a more vibrant phase in India-RoK relations. It resulted in the launching of a Joint Task Force to conclude a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was operationalised on 1 January 2010. President Lee paid a landmark visit to India as Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2010. It was then that the bilateral ties were raised to the level of Strategic Partnership.<2> This was quickly followed by President Pratibha Patil's State Visit in July 2011 where both countries signed a Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement. This received further boost during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official visit to Seoul in March 2012, not only for the Nuclear Security Summit but to discuss bilateral relations as well. FurtherIn January 2014, South Korean President Park Geun-hye conducted a state visit to India. The “Joint Statement for Expansion of Strategic Partnership” that was issued during this visit produced a blueprint for further expanding the two countries’ relations in the political, security, defence, economic, scientific & technological, and IT spheres. Equally importantly, the visit focused on cultural and people-to-people relations. The watershed in the bilateral relations came during the tenure of both countries’ current leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Soon after assuming the mantle in 2014, Prime Minister Modi unveiled a new policy called ‘Act East’<3> signaling the government’s strong commitment to deepen relations with countries in the Indo-Pacific region such as Japan and RoK.  As a followup, Prime Minister Modi paid a state visit to South Korea within the first year of his government, in May 2015. During this eventful state visit, India-RoK bilateral relations was upgraded to ‘special strategic partnership’. In the ‘Joint Statement for Special Strategic Partnership’, the two leaders agreed to establish a 2+2 consultation mechanism at the level of the Secretary/Vice Minister of Foreign Office and Defense Ministry. In 2017, President Moon took over the South Korean presidency, and the country’s relationship with India soon witnessed much greater traction. President Moon immediately made his pro-India stance clear by sending Chung Dongchea, former culture minister, as his special envoy to India; it was the first such instance in the bilateral relationship. He later took the crucial decision of upgrading the relationship equivalent to four traditional partners under the “New Asia Community Plus” framework<4>. In parallel, India’s then Finance and Defense Minister Arun Jaitely (now deceased) visited South Korea in June 2017 during which the two countries concluded talks on the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF), signed an MoU between their EXIM banks, and reviewed ongoing defence relationship. This was followed by a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of G-20 Summit in Hamburg in early July 2017. Giving a further fillip to the relationship, President Moon made a four-day state visit to India in July 2018. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent visit to India from July 8-11 was landmark in providing a new impetus to India-South Korea relations. This was Moon’s first official visit to India and he took this visit in pursuance of his new southward strategy that sought to follow a balanced diplomacy by strengthening RoK’s relations with ASEAN countries, including India. In other words, President Moon’s visit came at a critical juncture in which India-South Korea relations have matured. Some 46 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations, their ties especially in the last decade or so have grown robust and multi-dimensional, encompassing a wide range of interests including nuclear disarmament, maritime security, regional economic cooperation, counterterrorism, and energy cooperation.<5>

Cultural Relations: Building on Civilisational Links

One of the critical but largely unseen developments in the recent decades is the gradual recognition of deeper historical and civilisational bonds between the two friendly nations. Indeed, India and RoK relations have a deep civilisational link dating back to several centuries. The spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia in the 4th century formed a direct connection between India and South Korea, and since then has continued to remain a critical reference point. What many may not be aware of is that there is a much deeper cultural bond between the two nations: A significant Korean consciousness relates to the legend of the marriage of the Korean King Suro with Suriratna, princesses from Ayodhya, the sacred birthplace of Hindu God Lord Rama.<6> With these critical openings, a huge surge has begun in the last few decades in terms of expanding and cementing cultural ties between these two ancient civilisations. The cultural ties have been institutionalised via the establishment of an Indian Cultural Centre (ICC) in Seoul in April 2011. Another culture centre was established in Busan in December 2013 through the public-private-partnership mode. Earlier, in May 2011, a bust of Nobel Laureate and famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was unveiled in Daehangro,  Seoul. Even further, both countries have a taken series of important decisions to boost people-to-people relations in terms of improving travel between the two countries. For instance, India extended a visa-on-arrival (VoA) facility for South Korean tourists beginning 15 April 2014. As a gesture of friendship and goodwill to the South Korean people, the Prime Minister of India gifted South Korea a sapling of the sacred Bodhi tree under which the Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment. Similarly, a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, presented by ICCR, was unveiled at the Hongbeop-sa temple in Busan on 21 July 2014. Further, ICC in Seoul and Busan offers regular classes on yoga and dance, both contemporary and classical for promotion of Indian culture. Classes on Hindi, tabla and cooking have also been started with local teachers as part of outreach activities. Lectures, exhibitions and performances are arranged periodically by ICC. An annual festival of India in South Korea titled SARANG was initiated in 2015 and held in 2016, showcasing the diversity of Indian culture and art forms in various parts of South Korea.<7>

Institutional Cooperation

In the last few years a number of institutional arrangements and agreements have been signed between organisations and academic entities to further people-to-people exchanges. This included an MoU between India’s Foreign Services Institute (FSI) and the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA) signed in March 2012, and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) various MoUs with Yonsei University, Korea University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) and Busan University of Foreign Studies. The Delhi University (DU) has also signed a MoU with Korea University. In addition, HUFS in Seoul, and Busan University of Foreign Studies have created their respective Indian Studies departments; for their part, JNU and DU offer programmes in Korea Studies and Korean Language courses, respectively. Madras University has also opened a Department of Korean Studies encouraged by the sizeable presence of Koreans in Tamil Nadu, including employees of Hyundai Motors and their families. Recently as well, the Central University of Jharkhand (CUJ) started offering five-year integrated postgraduate degrees in Korean language. Manipur University and Madras Christian College are offering Diploma courses in Korean Language.<8> Similarly, in 2012 Seoul National University established a New Department of Asian Languages and 4 Civilizations which offers a degree in Indian Studies. Various other universities in South Korea are offering degree courses in Indian Philosophy, Yoga and Ayurveda. The Seoul Forum for International Affairs and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations have been jointly organising the India-Korea Dialogue that makes recommendations on policies and practical measures to strengthen bilateral relations between the countries. Twenty rounds of dialogue have been held till date, with the last one in November 2016 in Seoul. The Ananta Aspen Centre will be coordinating the 16th round of dialogue from the Indian side, held in November 2017. The Institute for Indian Studies Korea (IISK) was established at Korea International Trade Association (KITA) on 3 December 2013, bringing together a large number of Korean academics, economists and business representatives. 'India Fortune' has been organising 'India Advanced Management Programme' for MPs, senior South Korean officials, and CEOs covering Indian economy, corporate environment, and Indian culture. The participants are taken to India on a familiarisation tour. In other words, a good beginning has been made in the past few years to foster and promote people-to-people exchanges and deepen awareness amongst various sections of both countries.

Improving Connectivity

A critical development in recent years is improved air connectivity between the two countries. With Air India, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air operating direct flights at regular intervals, air travel has become more accessible to a bigger number of people. The bilateral civil aviation agreement of 1994 was revised in November 2015, increasing weekly flights between the two countries to 19; this resulted in new operations by Korean Airlines which started direct flights to Delhi. The number of visas issued by South Korea to Indian tourists has gone up dramatically, too. Yet, there remains scope for much improvement in connectivity between the two countries. Testimony to this is the low number of Indians living in South Korea, estimated at 12,000, 120 of them PIOs. Nearly 1,000 Indian students are pursuing postgraduate and doctoral programmes, mostly in natural sciences in South Korea. However, this is minuscule compared to the number of Indian students who go to Australia and Singapore.

New Areas of Cooperation

As discussed earlier, despite the many positive stories and the massive turn-around in ties, there remains immense potential in India-RoK relations particularly in the realms of cultural and institutional exchanges.

Swacch Bharat and New Village Movement

India under PM Modi has launched an ambitious initiative on sanitation called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India campaign. Launched with much fanfare in 2014, this campaign aims to stop open defecation and draw basic attention to sanitation and public health for development has caught global attention. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded Prime Minister Modi their highest award for swachh bharat. Although the initiative has emerged as a national awareness movement, it continues to struggle with a lack of resources. It is in this regard that the country can learn from the experience of South Korea, especially its Saemaul Undong or New Village Movement. Highlighting the possibility of experience sharing and learnings, a Korean scholar Soyen Park<9> has drawn the attention of Indian policymakers to study the evolution and positive lessons of the New Village Movement that was initiated by then-President Park Chung-hee in 1970. The New Village Movement encourages self-help and voluntarism for households and schools to clean up their neighbourhoods. The movement has had a huge impact on improving several sectors of the economy apart from rural health and livelihoods. While the Korean experiment was undertaken in different socio-economic contexts and may not exactly suit India conditions, Indian leadership and civil society can engage with academics and governmental institutions in Korea to learn from this initiative.

Bollywood, K-pop and Korean Cuisine

For years, Korean cuisine and TV serials have emerged as a key point of consumption among several states in India’s northeast. The popularity of Korean TV shows—and K-pop in particular—have grown in the last decade, albeit under curious circumstances. In the early 2000s, several insurgent groups in Nagaland and Manipur banned Hindi channels and Bollywood movies in the region. This gave the local people little choice but to turn to other viewing fares for entertainment, and Korean soap operas became an attractive choice.<10> Beyond the Northeast, even Bollywood filmmakers themselves have grown increasingly fond of South Korean films. Popular movies produced in South Korea have been adapted and reproduced in Hindi cinemas and many of them became blockbusters winning awards and international recognition. For instance, Salman Khan-starrer, Bharat, was adapted from the 2014 Korean hit film, Ode to my Father.<11> Similarly, Korean hit, A Hard Day was made as OMG or Oh My God by director Umesh Shukla, which won many accolades.  In 2015 alone, as many as nine Korean films were adapted in Hindi, some of them becoming the biggest grosser at the box office. Of course, this is not say the Bollywood films have no impact in Korean civic space. In fact, some movies like 3 Idiots by Amir Khan and My Name is Khan earned excellent reviews in Korea. Indian movies Stanley’s Tiffin Box, God’s Own Child and The Robot also earned critical acclaims in recent film festivals in Seoul. Indeed, films, music, cuisines among other cultural affinities have a huge potential to drive and deepen people-to-people relations and can act as a bridge between India and South Korea. This needs more institutionalized attention.

Shared Values of Democracy

One of the most unexplored areas of cooperation to strengthen the relationship between India and South Korea is democracy.<12> In Asia, India and South Korea, as democracies, share common values and have been seen above convergent interests in the region. As middle-power democracies in Asia where there are growing and the common threat from authoritarian non-democratic power, democracy building and cooperation can be a critical platform. The region, which is already experiencing the evolution of a democratic bloc in the name of Indo-Pacific quadrilateral involving India, Japan, Australia, and the US, needs the support of other middle powers such as Korea and Indonesia. A key shortcoming on democracy in Asia is the lack of government-to-government cooperation on democracy building, governance cooperation, more so at the level of civil society. This is something that needs serious thinking and deliberation among the various stakeholders representing South Korea and India. There is a growing chorus for the middle-power democracies in Asia to play a larger role in strengthening and promoting liberal democratic values and a rules-based order.<13> South Korea has numerous think tanks and endowments specialising on democracy promotion and promoting liberal order in Indo-Pacific to steer this space. While India lacks institutional capacity and resources on this, it can take cues from RoK. A steady decline of liberal democracies, the rapid rise of authoritarian regimes particularly China and the growing uncertainty over the continued support of advanced democracies especially the US, and a host of other factors have contributed to the rising relevance of non-western democracies or middle powers. India and Korea, with the possible inclusion of Japan, can fill this space. To defend the region from threats to liberal democracies, India and South Korea, along with other middle powers, can think of expanding cooperation in the following areas:
  • Country-to-country engagement (party to party level cooperation/institutionalising democratic assistance)
  • Cooperation with like-minded countries in Asia to build capacities, technical/financial support on promoting and strengthening democratic governance
  • Cooperation on fighting global issues/challenges: climate change, freedom of navigation, internet governance, and outer space
  • Economic order: Sustainable development goals (SDGs), trade agreements, and connectivity norms
  • Creation of a Security Order (i.e., Quad) to secure a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific
  • Aid: line of credit
  • More openness to think tanks/NGOs/networks of scholars/activists to create a critical mass
  • Cooperation at the level of NGOs and think tanks – to build networks of think tanks and research organisations
In short, there is massive scope to expand ties between India and South Korea and make it a special relationship in Asia. What is needed is political will and new imagination in diverse areas such as cultural relations, building on people-to-people contacts, harnessing democracy and liberal values, and cementing civilisational connections. These, in turn, will depend on the strength of the bilateral economic and political relations.
This essay originally appeared here
<1> See backgrounder “India-Republic of Korea Bilateral Relations”, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), 2017. <2> Ibid, op.cit <3> See Ranjit Kumar Dhawan, India’s Act East Policy towards two Koreas: Issues and Challenges, IDSA Brief, September 2018,. <4> See an excellent coverage of this in Wionnews, 25 April 2018. <5> KV Kesavan, The Pioneer, 24 July 2018. <6> See a nice short report by Nikita Mandhani, The Indian Princess who became a South Korean Queen, BBC, November 04, 2018. <7> See MEA Backgrounder, 2017. <8> See MEA Backgrounder 2017. <9> What Clean India can learn from Korea’s New village Movement, The Diplomat, October 23, 2014. <10> For more, see India Today report, June 13, 2017. see Marchang Reimeingam, Korean Media Consumption in Manipur: A Catalyst of Acculturation to Korean Culture, ISEC Working paper 342, 2015. <11> See an exclusive report on Indian filmmakers liking for South Korean movies by Aakash Karkare, Scroll, June 16, 2016. Also The Financial Express, January 06, 2019. <12> Lakhvinder Singh, Giving Ties with Seoul a facelift, The Hindu, July 24, 2019. <13> Ted Piccone, Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of International Democratic Order,  Brooking Institution Press, 2016.
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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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