Talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have stalled. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

Today not many people know that by the time Korean War was over an estimated 220,000 patients from both sides had been treated by an Indian medical ambulance unit serving in Korea.

As a recognition of this important contribution, Lieutenant-Colonel A G Rangaraj, India’s first paratrooper, is being celebrated across South Korea as the Korean War Hero for the month of July. Dozens of events are expected to be organized throughout the country to celebrate the Indian peace-building role in Korea.

After achieving a massive win in April’s parliamentary elections, President Moon Jae-in was expected to announce new initiatives to revive and strengthen the stalled peace process with North Korea. His proposals at the dawn of the new year were not well received by Pyongyang, which also ignored his call in April to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

It will be no less than a miracle if Moon succeeds in arousing North Korea’s interest in the peace process again without first changing the fundamental positions of the outside actors involved in the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang’s recent decision to cut off all lines of communication with Seoul over its inability to control the anti-North activities in the South has made the task more difficult for Moon. If he is still serious about reviving the peace process, he has to start with non-controversial issues such as family reunions, food aid, assistance in improving agriculture production, and Red Cross meetings among others and leave complex issues related with denuclearization for a later day.

From the day Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism by the Allied Powers at the end of World War II, outside forces have been overwhelmingly involved in the Korean Peninsula. At the start of the Korean War hordes of foreign powers rushed in.

The main parties in the war, the US and China, jumped into the fight for regional dominance. It is the ideologies of these two opposing blocs that led to the division of the peninsula in the first place.

Originally Koreans had a single ideology, the ideology of nationalism. They were a united nation for more than five centuries. Hence it would be wrong to say that the war was fought for indigenous ideological reasons – it was outside ideology that was thrust on the Koreans and not that they had chosen it.

The fight for regional dominance continues to this day. And it is for this reason the two Koreas still find it very difficult to reconcile their differences and unify the country. If the Koreans do not move out of this quagmire – a Chinese-influenced unified Korea that is not acceptable to the US or a US-influenced unified Korea that is not acceptable to China – the Koreas may not unite for very long time. 

Given the complexity of the situation the two Koreas are in today, we may focus on the way out for the Koreans. The two Koreas, being strong and independent nations, now do not have to choose between the two rival camps but can now make new allies and carve their own path and reject both.

Herein lies the importance of countries that have no vested interest in the region but that would like the Korean Peninsula to be unified. India has been a champion of peace and non-violence. It played a major role in the resolution of conflict during the Korean War and it still has the capacity to do so today. It is time Koreans start taking the role of India in peace-building seriously.

India’s neutral stance

With fighting erupting in the early morning of June 25, 1950, the US and its allies intervened in the Korean Peninsula to prevent a communist takeover of the country and to protect Japan and stop the spread of communism southward in the region. The US immediately took the matter to the United Nations, where it tried to dominate the proceedings as the Soviet Union boycotted the UN over the Security Council’s failure to admit the People’s Republic of China.

Remaining neutral, India resisted the use of the phrase “act of aggression” in a proposed draft resolution and succeeded in replacing it with “breach of the peace.” In addition, India refused to support a proposal that gave the command of UN forces to an American general and favored a neutral nation be put in charge.

After the American proposal was accepted, India refused to send military forces to fight and shed the blood of Koreans and decided to provide a field ambulance unit that would treat wounded soldiers from both sides. 

Indian prime mister Jawaharlal Nehru along with his aides, such as B N Rau, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, K M Panikkar, India’s ambassador to China, and special envoy V K Krishna Menon, led a campaign to stop the conflict from the earliest possible date.

The fact that Chinese president Zhou Enlai preferred to communicate with the Americans through Indian officials highlights the role India was playing to bring peace to the war-torn country. At that point India was the only country both parties could trust. The kind of support India enjoyed from both parties was proved again when the Indian resolution related to prisoners of war and to the end of hostilities was adopted on December 3, 1952, with unanimous non-Soviet support.

With Josef Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, India saw an opening to stop the war once again and submitted its proposal for the quick end of the hostilities. This proposal, merged with an American one, was to become the foundation for the armistice agreement at a later stage.

India also played an important role in the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), which was set up to decide the fate of more than 20,000 prisoners of war from both sides. That India was chosen to chair the NNRC, with Poland and Czechoslovakia representing the Communist bloc and Sweden and Switzerland representing the West, showed that other countries were confident in India’s ability to untangle such a complicated issue.

Lieutenant-General K S Thimayya, the Indian head of the NNRC, was celebrated at home and abroad for having executed his mission successfully and courageously. P N Haksar, aide to the NNRC, played a leading role in drafting the proposals related to repatriation to the UN General Assembly in 1953 and 1954. 

At the end of the negotiations when eight or so prisoners of war refused to go back to their native countries and wished to go to neutral countries, India immediately welcomed them to Delhi pending a final decision by the UN on their fate. When most of them chose to leave for countries in Central and South America, India let them go as per their free will without any restrictions and conditions. One prisoner, Kim Hyeong, who expressed his desire to live and raise his family in India, was allowed to do so without any problem. 

Cold War intervenes

Despite such great efforts, India’s peace-building role during the Korean War has been mostly ignored by the general public, scholars and government officials both in Korea and abroad. Most have mentioned India’s role in passing only.

British historian Robert Barnes is the first scholar who in his 2013 study “Between the Blocs: India, the United Nations, and Ending the Korean War” rightfully analyzed India’s role during the Korean War and acknowledged its never-ending and sincere efforts in peace-building in Korea.

After the end of the Korean War, India’s role in the Korean Peninsula was gradually reduced because of Cold War politics. However, India and South Korea started coming closer together again after the end of the Cold War. Trade ties between the two countries are booming as they aim for bilateral trade of $50 billion by 2030.

Lately India has been showing greater interest in peace-building on the Korea Peninsula. Promoting peace in Korea is emerging as part of the core agenda for the Indian and South Korean strategic partnership.

The Indian government has declared full support for President Moon’s peace overtures to North Korea and is offering to play a mediator role if its services are requested. It is prepared to go the extra mile to complete the unfinished task of ending the Korean War and peacefully unifying the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the best efforts of the international community to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has succeeded in acquiring them. This has brought the threat of nuclear obliteration to the doorstep of the Korean people, making the peace process all the more urgent. Nuclear war would have devastating effects in the entire region. India, which has strong economic relations with South Korea, would be badly hurt by such a war. Thus India shares its concerns about nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

Building peace on the Korean Peninsula is becoming more imperative, not only for India but for every country in the region. It is time we start making collective efforts in that direction. Tomorrow may be too late.

Lakhvinder Singh

Lakhvinder Singh is director of peace and security studies at the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

Youngjun Kim

Youngjun Kim is a professor of the National Security College at the Korea National Defense University (KNDU). He is a member of National Security Advisory Board for the Republic of Korea Presidential Office (Blue House).