By Sourajit Aiyer
Sourajit Aiyer is an author and a researcher for the South Asia Fast Track
At the recent Magnetic Maharashtra event, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis outlined his $1 trillion economy vision. What stood out was that the Japanese ambassador was the only one who was allocated a presentation-slot after Fadnavis, to explain how Japan would support this vision. Japan’s partnership with India is only deepening, both in hard and soft infrastructure. The India-USA relationship is also progressing. At such a time, how should India view an issue that is vexing both Washington and Tokyo: Kim Jong Un of North Korea?
Relations between North Korea and India
Pyongyang, far from Delhi geographically, and further away geopolitically, is the playground of the Far-East giants and the USA, and is outside the immediate realm of Indian foreign policy. However, India is now at a stage where its economic policy has to re-prioritise its foreign policy, not the other way around. There is a strong reason for India to make its voice heard on international forums if its strategic partners (the US and Japan) do eventually draw a game-plan on tacking Kim. Of all the options—stronger sanctions, outright war or negotiated settlement—it is in India’s self-interest to push the case for the third one. Given the stage of India’s growth journey and a dependence on foreign investment from these two partners to fund that journey, any confrontation that can hit their coffers and allocation priorities must be avoided. So while the Koreas seem far from the “neck-of-the-woods”, we cannot ignore it.
The Korean problem heated up under Trump with Kim developing inter-continental missiles that could reach the US mainland—a capability only China and Russia had so far. Kim reiterated, in an address to the Workers’ Congress, of his “byungjin-line” policy to develop the economy and nuclear programme simultaneously. That meant tests would continue. Japan may keep a quieter stance than the US as of now, but any aggressive action by the US-Navy in the Pacific may compel its Asian allies to enter confrontation-mode. China adds another dimension. How would such an exigency impact India? Any misadventure could temporarily reallocate the investments coming from Japan in coming years, and future projects for which India needs critical funding may face a paucity. Reconstruction due to collateral damage would only prolong that situation. India cannot afford that. So of all the options available to USA and Japan, a negotiated settlement is what India has to noisily push for, instead of unworkable options like sanctions or war.
Effects of a probable sanction
Continuing sanctions would be non-positive on three counts. North Korea has a small population of 25 million, and its most essential needs are met domestically or from China. About 83% of its exports go to China and 85% of imports come from China. There is not much trade with others which would be impeded by stricter sanctions. Second, North Korea’s economy is not as weak as opinion says. After the primary sectors, its industrial sector has developed reasonably like most socialist states. As per Mitsuhiro Mimura of Japan’s Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia, it has built sophisticated production despite a low GDP. Individuals can now start small enterprises as cooperative groups. Managers in state-owned industries are free to sell beyond state-targets, give incentives to ramp up production and find investment for expansion. Most of its products are ammunition, which has demand elsewhere. CIA estimates its industrial sector to comprise 41% of its economy, higher than the average 30% in large developing countries. This adds muscle to the regime’s defiance. Lastly, there is no strong face of the opposition, unlike in Iran when the sheer following garnered by Khomeini’s persona collapsed the Shah’s regime. Who would stand up and raise the sanctions’ debilitating effects, and fuel public-demonstrations? That is the way it occurred in sanction-ridden countries, but there is no suitable persona in North Korea. So if sanctions are continued, it may only extend the status-quo into a confrontation. Such a situation would be undesirable for India’s self-interests!
Even war is not the solution
A war would be an utter disaster. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal make the cost of a war too high. In any case, Kim’s nuclear weapons would be mobile or hidden. Striking those targets at the first-go would be rare, thus prolonging the conflict. The after-effects of USA’s offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s continue till date. Moreover, while China toed the line on sanctions, it may not support a war that would bring desperate North Korean refugees into its soil. In any case, with China and USA not seeing eye-to-eye in many matters, any US-offensive in the region may be viewed by China as an indirect threat to its own position in the Far East. In effect, any conflict between the USA and North Korea may take the larger form of a conflict between USA and China. In the extreme, Pyongyang may send weapons to anti-US countries to globalise the conflict further. Such a conflict would be heartily undesirable for India’s self-interests.
Negotiation as the safest solution
A negotiated settlement to the ongoing crisis would work best for India’s interests. Even the South Korean leadership has differences with the USA on how to handle North Korea, so India would not be alone. However, it should stress flexibility to make any negotiation effective. After all, Pyongyang’s weapons give it bargaining power. One way can be to allow North Korea to continue using nuclear resources for commercial purposes, just like South Korea develops nuclear energy.
In the end, diplomacy creates low-cost and less-antagonising solutions. The recent invite by Kim’s sister to South Korea’s President is a step in this direction. It is in India’s interest to support such initiatives and make that voice be heard. It has to let its economic policy re-prioritise its foreign policy. If negotiations can stall confrontations, it would reduce the danger now, when India needs sustained support from Japan for its own economy.