South Korean President Moon Jae-in made a four-day visit to India as part of his efforts to promote his New Southern Policy. It has been the longest visit by any leaders of South Korea or India to each other’s countries.
Unlike in the past, when South Korea approached India under its “sales diplomacy,” President Moon emphasized a comprehensive partnership putting emphasis on “people, prosperity and peace” in the future relations between the two countries.
India and South Korea signed 11 MOUs in various domains of their exchanges and a vision document was also adopted. Moon visited the largest mobile phone factory in the world which is being built in India by Samsung.
Thus, South Korea has shown its clear desire to be part of India’s many important economic plans such as “Make in India,” “Skill India,” “Digital India,” “Start-up India” and “Smart Cities.” Both countries also intend to raise their bilateral trade from the current $20 billion to $50 billion by 2030.
India and South Korea have agreed to have “regular” visits at the highest level and several platforms for business leaders to cultural and educational entities in both the countries to meet and understand each other have been announced. Both countries have also expressed their mutual commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, the fight against terrorism, maritime security including free and safe sea routes.
However, it might be said that again a big-bang initiative or an announcement to put more content in the bilateral relations of both countries was evaded and nothing out-of-the-box was agreed on to transform “incremental improvement” to “exponential improvement” in the relationship between the two countries.
Apparently there was not much direct talk about the Indo-Pacific strategy, China, or India’s claim to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. If there would have been an open joint position on any of these issues, the trajectory of India-South Korea would have moved to another level.
However, Moon’s visit can be evaluated overall quite positively. There are many important points which the visit has catered.
First, South Korea has taken a big leap by announcing that its relations with India would be given as much importance as it has been given to the big-four relations ― the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. It is indeed an important shift in the foreign policy of South Korea and it must be followed up.
Actually, Moon has been quite preoccupied with happenings on and around the Korean Peninsula after the very beginning of his term. Through the visit to India, South Korea has indicated that it would be ready to also bring India in its vision for regional peace and prosperity.
Second, Moon spent four days in India meeting all possible people including business leaders of India and South Korea, representatives of the Korean community in India, and varieties of leaders and officials of India. It is also important to note that in the first three days of his visit, he attended 14 functions and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi accompanied him to 11 of them.
Actually, it was a first that the Indian prime minister accompanied an official foreign guest visiting the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi.
Third, both countries, rather than adding any new “big” issue, tried to have more detailed and wide agreements in the existing framework of their bilateral relations.
Four, it must also be mentioned that during his visit, Moon tried to establish a personal bond with the Modi. He appreciated the Indian prime minister’s people-oriented policy, connecting to people through social media, and the use of the Korean language occasionally to tweet about South Korea.
Both leaders also talked about Moon’s daughter, who is a yoga instructor. It is indeed important as personal bonds between the leaders of countries might bring a huge change in their relationships.
Fifth, the framework of future relations between the two countries has rightly sequenced “people” at the top. The leaders traveled together by metro train and on their way talked to many Indians. This was widely reported and appreciated in Indian media.
Moon expressed that reconnecting people of the two countries would be given the highest priority. Actually, all the economic, political and strategic exchanges between any two countries are based on their knowledge and trust about each other and if India and South Korea make substantial progress in connecting people, most of this cooperation would be much more spontaneous and in-depth.
Overall, Moon’s visit to India had given an important boost to India-South Korea relations. Through the visit, South Korea has given a clear indication to make India central to its New Southern Policy. The future of these bilateral relations would further depend on how the two countries bring their joint vision and understandings into action.