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Why the South Korean president's visit is important

By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
January 22, 2010 14:03 IST
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India chooses the chief guests for its Republic Day celebrations with care and for a purpose.

The choice of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak this year clearly indicates that New Delhi wants to raise the level of its political relationship with Seoul to a higher level to match its burgeoning economic ties with South Korea.

Sources in the government suggested that the two were looking at setting up a high level strategic dialogue on defence and security issues and, possibly, the mechanism of an annual summit between the South Korean president and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to highlight the importance of the relationship.

This is a long-standing demand of the Koreans, particular after three of their presidents, Kim Young-sam, Roh Moo-hyun and now Lee visited India in the recent past (the latter two during the tenure of PM Manmohan Singh) while no Indian PM has visited that country after (or before) P V Narasimha Rao in 1993.

India has a system of annual summit meetings with very few countries, among them Russia and Japan. Diplomatic sources said the initiative to invite the South Korean leader for Republic Day celebrations came from Dr Singh himself.

Among his key motivating factors is to understand and, if possible, emulate the rapidity with which South Korea has powered itself out of poverty into an economic powerhouse in the space of a few decades. Singh and Lee have met at the three G-20 summits, most recently at Pittsburg, USA.

South Korea has cutting edge high technology to offer India, at considerably lower costs than its neighbour Japan or other technological giants like Germany and the United States, with which it is closely allied.

A member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group which supported India during its efforts to get a waiver, S Korea is keen to enter into a bilateral civil nuclear agreement with India to facilitate not only the sale of its nuclear power reactors, but also high technology, much of which is for dual uses.

Despite having signed the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, India is still finding it difficult to get such technologies from the United States and Japan.

The bilateral relationship between India and S Korea is anchored in the October 2004 Agreement on Long Term Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity signed during the visit of President Roh. The tension- and problem-free relationship between the two countries, both of which neighbour and are separated by China, has enormous potential, but both countries still find themselves out of each others' radar screens and are making a push to build synergies on all fronts, including defence, nuclear energy, infrastructure, trade and manufacture, science and technology, IT, tourism and culture.

Diplomatic sources said Seoul would be looking to India as a counterweight to China, particularly in Southeast Asia and in the East Asian forums, while New Delhi would look to Seoul for support to expand the ASEAN plus three forum.

Both countries also neighbour major nuclear proliferating countries, North Korea and Pakistan, which have actively assisted each other's nuclear weapons programmes. Lee and Singh are likely to discuss nuclear safety and non-proliferation and try to get a collaborative mechanism to check the threat from their proliferating neighbours.

The lack of any historical 'baggage' between the two countries has helped the relationship to grow, sources said, with bilateral exchanges more intense and broad based in the recent past and devoid of any irritants. Rapidly expanding trade and investment flows lie at the core of the bilateral cooperation. Also, in the sphere of defence, the Indian and S Korean navies have begun cooperation to help patrol the sea lanes in the region, particularly securing the safety of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and ensuring they are safe for passage of oil tankers. South Korea is a major oil importer.

Already, South Korea is only the second country (after Singapore) with which India has signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and bilateral trade is currently around $16 billion, rising at an average of 15 per cent annually. There has also been what officials called 'an investment surge' from Korea and, under the agreement, South Korea will eliminate duties on 93 percent of its industrial and agricultural products and India will do the same on 85 percent of its goods.

Indian industry is looking at the pact as an opportunity to bridge the bilateral trade deficit, currently heavily in favour of South Korea, double the trade volume in this decade and improve export of services.

According to India's Ambassador to South Korea, Skand Tayal, "India offers profitable opportunities to dynamic Korean companies to make India a base for manufacturing."

President Lee will begin his four-day journey to India on Sunday, his first overseas visit this year, during which he will hold summit-level discussions with Prime Minister Singh besides being the chief guest for the Republic Day parade.

The chief guests over the past five years have been Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 2005 (soon after an operation to flush out Indian insurgent groups from that country), Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2006, Russia's former President and now PM Vladimir Putin in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 2009.

The last three visits yielded active results in the civilian nuclear energy sector and the supply of uranium, while the Saudi monarch's visit resulted in considerably improved understanding and action in curbing monetary inflows for terrorist organisations in the region.


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Nilova Roy Chaudhury in New Delhi