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The Peninsula

India: The Other Emerging Power’s Reaction to Kim Jong Il’s Death

Published January 4, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

In Asia much of the pressure and focus from the transition in North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death is now on China, its neighbor and chief benefactor. As a rising power that provides both economic and national security assistance North Korea needs to survive, China is in a difficult situation with new leadership emerging in North Korea and new leadership scheduled to take over China in October. For the other major emerging power, however, India possesses more ability to monitor the situation in North Korea and react in its best interests to any changes on the Korean peninsula.

Ties between India and North Korea are growing. The two sides had a few diplomatic connections in 2011 that suggested an improvement in bilateral relations. Pak Ui-chun, North Korea’s Foreign Minister, visited India’s embassy in Pyongyang on January 26 for India’s Republic Day event. India’s ambassador to North Korea was then invited to a dinner with North Korean officials. India also provided food aid to North Korea by donating $1 million to the World Food Programme. Moreover, prior to donating food aid, India’s ambassador to North Korea was permitted to visit some of the countryside between Pyongyang and Nampo to see areas in need of economic assistance. The Indian ambassador then toured Nampo. North Korea also sent a delegation to India in May 2011 to examine India’s history with special economic zones. Although engagement with North Korea is often along these smaller interactions, the momentum in India – North Korea relations seems to have a positive trajectory.

Yet India’s relations with North Korea are still hampered by India’s concerns over North Korea’s relations with Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Burma. Both of India’s neighbors have a history of dangerous interaction with North Korea. Pakistan and North Korea previously traded missile and nuclear technology. Moreover, North Korea’s insistence on keeping its nuclear weapons reminds the international community of A.Q. Khan, one of the fathers of Pakistan’s nuclear program and his network of illegal transfers of nuclear material, especially the connections to North Korea. North Korea represents the negative example of a country outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, in contrast to the positive image India is trying to project for itself to the international community. For India, the rumors over North Korean assistance for Burma’s own nuclear weapons program, along with previous military cooperation, feed a sense of insecurity in the region. During her recent visit to Burma, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Burmese leaders that they must end their illicit activities with North Korea as part of the reforms they are trying to undertake.

North Korea provides some more immediate security concerns for countries recently enhancing their relations with India. South Korea, Japan, and the United States are more immediately impacted by the leadership transition after the death of Kim Jong Il and whose own policies can also more directly influence the outcomes on the Korean peninsula.

India has a strategic partnership and important economic relations with each of these countries. These new connections, along with India’s emergence as a rising power, will bring issues regarding transition in North Korea more deeply into India’s strategic portfolio. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan was in India the last week of December and called on India to support and understand Japan’s position on North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testified in March 2011 that the U.S. has discussed issues regarding North Korea with India. South Korea will also likely use its strategic partnership  with India to discuss approaches to North Korea in the near future.

The China factor is an important aspect in India’s foreign policy calculations. China’s reactions and responses to North Korea’s new leadership will demonstrate its confidence level toward Pyongyang. China would prefer a stable North Korea to prevent the burden of an uncertain government in Pyongyang and the possibility of major action toward North Korea during China’s own leadership transition in 2012. India probably would not mind if the uncertainties in North Korea kept China more preoccupied; some even suggest North Korea moving away from China would be beneficial to India as well.

India will have some benefit of not being directly impacted by the leadership transition in North Korea. However, the transition to Kim Jong-un will have an affect on India’s neighbors and its growing relationships with its strategic partners. India will be looking to see how the new North Korean leadership will approach their interactions with Pakistan, Burma, and China. South Korea, Japan, and the United States are likely to concentrate their efforts on the Korean peninsula, but will look to India for support as a regional and emerging world power. With the ascendance of Kim Jong-un, India’s development as a rising power will likely include more connections to issues regarding North Korea and the future of the Korean peninsula.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Sonal And Abe’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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