At the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula became a flash point between two superpowers because of serious ideological differences. As a result, Korea was divided into two parts, each siding with one of the opposing blocs, namely the Soviet Union and the United States.
Sensing that hostilities might break out between the two blocs, India, under the leadership of its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, became actively involved in maintaining peace in the Korean Peninsula by engaging all major stakeholders – the US, the USSR and China. As the Korean War broke out in June 1950, India redoubled its efforts to bring the war to an early end.
It also helped the warring parties to reduce the suffering caused by the war to the best possible extent. Its Para Field Ambulance unit cared for more than 220,000 soldiers and civilians and performed more than 2,300 field surgeries, and more than 5,200 personnel of Custodian Force India managed more than 25,000 prisoners of war and played an active role in settling repatriation disputes.
Apart from its efforts on the ground, India also played an active role in the UN-led peace process during and after the war. It supported all resolutions aimed at ending the war, such as United Nations Security Council Resolutions 82 and 83 of June 1950. Throughout peace negotiations, India firmly supported great powers working together to end the killing of innocent people instead of securing points against each other. This neutral and peaceful role of India in the process is remembered to this day.
As the Cold War power play took over the Korean Peninsula, neutral and peaceful countries like India were pushed out of the power configurations for almost four decades. Only after the Cold War ended were India and Korea able to come closer together with mutual economic synergy to create new opportunities for both.
Building soft power
Since the early 1990s, annual trade between India and South Korea grew from a few hundred million US dollars to $22 billion by the end of 2018. Now as special strategic partners they are aiming for $50 billion in annual trade by 2030. However, despite fast-growing economic ties it is rare to find any mention of India’s peace plans for the region in spite of the growing possibilities of conflict on the peninsula. The Indian foreign-policy establishment is yet to comprehend properly the role Korea will play in the fast-changing strategic paradigm in the region. Apart from empty political announcements at the end of political summits, very little is happening as far peace-building is concerned.
Korea is still a faraway land for the Indian foreign-policy establishment. That is why even with Korea edging closer to a nuclear catastrophe that could wipe out millions on the peninsula and kill thousands of others around the region through nuclear radiation after the war, the Indian foreign-policy establishment has felt no need to return to an active peace-building role. In spite of the clear power shift in Northeast Asia they believe what happens there does not have any direct bearing on Indian strategic and economic interests. So far they have failed to see any connection between conflict on the Korean Peninsula and Indian security. It is time the Indian government changed such perceptions and developed a comprehensive view of peace and security in Northeast Asia before it is too late.
It is often argued by critics that because of existing deterrence capabilities on both sides, the chances of a nuclear exchange on the Korean Peninsula is very low. However, given the level of distrust between the US and North Korea, the possibility of accidental nuclear war cannot be ruled out. Also with threats and provocations being exchanged by those two parities on a regular basis, the possibility of limited war under the cover of nuclear deterrence remains very high.
War in any form (nuclear or conventional) on the Korean Peninsula would have devastating economic and security effects in every dimension in the entire region. The Indian economy would not be able to stay aloof from the destruction, chaos and instability caused by war in Northeast Asia. All of New Delhi’s plans for building a $5 trillion economy by 2025 would have to be pushed back for decades if not more. What is more, a devastated Northeast Asia would become more vulnerable to military pressure from the emerging regional power – China – leading to serious implications for Indian security.
India, as an emerging power itself, has strong imperatives to build its soft-power base in the region. Fortunately all components of building soft power are already in place for India. For example, unlike others India does not have an adverse historical legacy in East Asia, and maintains a high trust factor among all countries in the region. Traditional Indian scriptures, which focus exclusively on peace, are held in great respect in that part of the world. Thus given the respect India enjoys in the region it simply cannot walk away from the teachings of its saints and leaders such as the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi and let millions in the region suffer from the fires of war. Playing an active role in building peace on the Korean Peninsula will not only fulfill its moral duties as a “country of peace saints” but will also provide India an opportunity to build its soft-power image like no other.
According to rough estimates by scholars, North Korea may have as many as 60 nuclear warheads. Despite international efforts over the decades, North Korea refuses to step back and peace efforts continue to fail. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent efforts raised some hopes for resolution of the nuclear problem, but negotiations were stalled in regional power politics. As the recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to North Korea demonstrates, slowly but surely China has been spreading its fingers in to the region again. There is a real possibility that Korea will once again become a pawn of regional powers.
In the emerging power struggle in the peninsula and the region there are also some strong pragmatic reasons for India to play an active role in building peace on the Korean Peninsula. Currently China is attempting to replace the US as the dominant regional player through various tools such as economic aid, infrastructure development, increased trade and investment, among others. It is also increasing its naval presence in region like never before. Unable to bear the pressure, already many countries in the region have begun tilting toward China. At this rate it is just a matter of time before the whole East Asian region becomes part of the Chinese sphere of influence.
South Korea is also becoming more vulnerable to this increased Chinese pressure. Once the ever-growing Chinese navy begins its systematic push, South Korea will find it difficult to stand strong alone. A united Korea stands a better chance to meet the challenges of this power shift. Indian strategic thinkers need to understand what it means for India to have Korea tilted toward China. Chinese thinkers are already talking about global communism with the help of its friends and allies. It gives some indications of the things to come.
Since the end of World War II, the US has maintained peace and prosperity in the region through its complex network of security alliances. It succeeded in keeping historical legacies, territorial disputes and disputes for the global commons in check. War in Korea would dismantle the US-led security architecture once for all. With no system in place, the region might quickly slide back into chaos and misery, with devastating effects for India. Indian policymakers again must fully understand what it means to its security to have a bleeding and burning East Asia on its eastern borders.
Not too late
Despite the growing risks of conflict, many scholars and officials in India are not convinced of the need for their country to play any active role in conflict prevention on the Korean Peninsula. Many also feel the peace process in Korea has already become too complicated and it is too late for India to play any meaningful role. They believe too much water has flowed through the Han River since India last played an active peace role, during the Korean War. They also feel existing players involved in the peace process may not give any space and role in the peace process to India for various strategic and economic reasons. They specifically point to China in this regard as China considers the Korean Peninsula its back yard.
To answer the concerns of the critics, India does not need to go directly into becoming an official party in the peace process. Neither does it need to challenge the established parties’ role and place, especially China’s, in the peace process. The two countries have separate and legitimate roles, China as a neighbor and India as a major Asian power. Thus to soothe the concerns of other parties India can begin with small baby steps, such as supporting non-governmental organizations and individuals working on the ground to promote peace.
India can also come out with third-party policy alternatives to close the gaps between the US and North Korea and provide a neutral platform for the two parties to narrow their differences. Thus India could offer itself as a venue for future peace talks. Since India has long-standing relations with North Korea, it would be easy for New Delhi to win the confidence of Pyongyang and act as go-between just as it did before, during and after the Korean War.
Growing hunger and poverty due to crippling sanctions imposed by the US and the United Nations could be a major source of instability inside North Korea and could also lead to accidental war due to growing anger and frustration among the elite and ordinary North Koreans alike. India should therefore join hands with South Korea to appeal to the world to provide humanitarian assistance to poor and hungry North Korean people. Keeping peace and prosperity inside North Korea and saving it from sudden implosion and collapse should be India’s top priority, as chaos and instability inside that country could have serious economic, political and strategic repercussions for the whole region, including India.
There are many things India can do to support the peace process without looking overtly overbearing. Slowly and gradually as India’s contribution is accepted by all parties involved, then if it wishes it can move to the next level to be part of the official peace process, depending on needs and circumstances in the region.
Indian officials in Seoul must stop pretending everything is going just fine and there is no need to do anything. They must appreciate the situation we Indians are in. There is not much time left before a new order emerges in Northeast Asia. Thus it may be our last chance to build, strengthen and deepen our roots there. Before millions of innocent people die because of war or internal chaos, India as a major “force of peace” must act.
This is India’s spiritual karma. This is who we are, as a people.