By Nicholas Hamisevicz
The past few weeks have not been a good for India’s relations with the Korean peninsula as it recently went through a minor diplomatic rough patch with both North and South Korea. Though relatively undamaging, these situations indicated some of the difficulties in dealing with India.
For South Korea, its embassy in New Delhi was trying to purchase a facility that would house its cultural center; however, a property dealer cheated the embassy by promising them the building despite having already rented the facility out to someone else. This trouble will further delay a promise by South Korea to build a cultural center in New Delhi, which President Lee Myung-bak emphasized during his visit to India in 2010. The joint statement from the March 2012 meeting between President Lee and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also said the Korean cultural center “would be operational in New Delhi in the course of the year.”
A recent KIEP report and survey shows Indians having a decent understanding of Korea; however, in multiple instances, feelings toward Japan were greater than those toward Korea, including in preference for pop culture exchanges. For countries separated by the tyranny of distance and in the beginning of their strategic partnership, familiarity with one another among the general population is vital for the enhancement of relations.
For India, this unfortunate incident plays into the perception of India being a difficult place for business and having a large amount of corruption. The 2012 Ease of Doing Business Report ranked India 132nd out of 183 countries and 97th in the category of registering a property. This problem is delaying an avenue for increased ties between South Korea and India.
At the same time, the process for India’s next ambassador to North Korea has also created a negative perception. Rumors abound that no one wanted the job. Eventually, Ajay Sharma, a former stenographer and aide, was named the ambassador to North Korea. India’s foreign service has three different groups: directly recruited officers called the IFS(A), a secretarial group called the IFS(B), and the stenographers. IFS(B) level officials and others complained; they felt a person from their group should have been picked, that Sharma had not moved through the process to join the IFS(A), and that a stenographer would not have the skills necessary to run an embassy.
In recent years, diplomatic ties between India and North Korea have been growing, as well as North Korea’s interaction with the Indian embassy in Pyongyang. These ties could be hindered by a potentially unskilled diplomat and could inhibit North Korea’s approach to India as a possible partner to help them offset some of their dependence on China.
This issue has highlighted some key problems for India. First, in comparison with its population, India has a low number of people in its foreign service. Reports suggest India has around 800 diplomats to help serve over 150 missions and consulates. Second, this incident becomes another piece of evidence toward the perception of an inefficient bureaucracy in India. Lastly, not having anyone choose to serve in Pyongyang suggests a lack of incentive to work in a country like North Korea; moreover, it suggests a lack of understanding of where North Korea fits in to India’s foreign policy and its Look East policy.
The problems in India are highlighted as countries from around the globe attempt to improve their relations with a rising power. These problems, especially corruption and difficulty in business affairs, have occurred before. The challenge for India is to try to address these issues and perceptions while still trying to sustain its rise as a regional and global power as well as engage in new relations with numerous countries. Unfortunately, India recently had a bad stretch where some of these problems emerged. It is even more unfortunate that they affected India’s growing interactions with North and South Korea.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.