India has long had warm relations with the DPRK (North Korea) and in the 21st century this relationship has led to a general increase in bilateral trade between the two nations. While India (like all other trading partners of the DPRK) runs a vast trading surplus with the DPRK, the long term importance of an Indo-Korean economic partnership is clearly not lost on either side. At present, India is the second biggest market for the DPRK’s modest exports while India is the third largest source of imports to the DPRK behind neighbouring China and Russia. With China alone accounting for 90% of imports to the DPRK, it is fair to say that India like North Korea’s other trading partners, is not making substantial amounts of money based on trade with the DPRK. However, in an age where the DPRK’s highly educated, productive and healthy workforce are looking to embrace economic openness in a (sooner or later to be) post-sanctions environment, multiple nations will be looking to the DPRK as an Asian tiger economy in the making that presents multiple opportunities for a variety of investment and trading partners.
Even prior to the Singapore summit during which Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un proclaimed a new era in the DPRK’s relations with the US and by extrapolation the wider world that previous had few meaningful ties to the DPRK, India began showing signs of seeking increased connectivity with Pyongyang.
In May of this year India’s Minister of State for External Affairs General V K Singh visited Pyongyang at the request of the DPRK’s government. Singh’s visit represented the first instance of a high level Indian minister of state travelling to Pyongyang in nearly twenty years.
While India’s relationship with the DPRK has occasionally been touted by New Delhi as a positive example of its historic non-aligned status, as India rapidly sheds the trappings of non-alignment in order to become a major American ally in Asia, one must view India’s current state of relations with the DPRK through the prism of US strategy for the region.
Indeed, it was not long ago that India dramatically curtailed its otherwise healthy economic relations with Pyongyang under direct pressure from the United States. Now though that the matter of the US joining its UN Security Council colleagues to lift sanctions against the DPRK appears to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, multiple nations are already looking to expand ties with the DPRK. This is not only true of Pyongyang’s closet historic allies China and Russia but it is also now true of the United States. As part of the presentation that Donald Trump made to Kim Jong-un in Singapore, a video promoting the economic benefits of cooperation with the US formed a major centrepiece of the overall message that Washington delivered to Pyongyang.
Furthermore, as geopolitical expert Andrew Kroybko wrote shortly after the Singapore summit, far from the DPRK-US detente being a repeat of the ill-fated Libya-US detente of 2003 that ended in a brutal US led regime change war against the wealthy north African state, the US actually needs the DPRK to be an economic success story in the medium term in order to counter the bad publicity that the US has garnered through such ultimately dishonest deals of the past – notably the one cut with Tripoli.
In this sense, the US and China’s economic rivalry may inevitably spill into the DPRK as Beijing looks to integrate a more economically harmonised Korean peninsula into the Belt and Road initiative while at the same time, the US seeks to turn a post-sanctions DPRK into an West Berlin style showcase of what can be accomplished through a rapid influx of US investment.
Of course as part of Donald Trump’s overall strategy of coaxing America’s partners to spend their own money on joint projects that in previous generations would have been almost entirely funded by Marshall Plan style US “aid”, India is a strong contender to be America’s “number two” in a post-sanctions DPRK. As the South Korean government could not and likely will not shoulder the investment burden alone but will instead focus primarily on working with Pyongyang to develop something akin to a One Country-Two Systems model and because suspicion of Japan continues to run high in Korea for clear historic reasons, India is theoretically well placed to become a major factor in a post-sanctions Korea so far as Washington is concerned. This is the case because from an historic perspective, India does not carry the baggage of some of the peninsula’s closest neighbours like Japan, while a clear impetus in New Delhi does exist to make the most of already good relations with Pyongyang.
The danger in such an arrangement is that far from seeking to integrate as many Asian powers as possible into a would-be pan-Korean economic renaissance, the US may well be on the verge of using India’s own zeal for non-Chinese north east Asian partners in order to try and stifle China’s relations with Pyongyang which themselves are going through something of a renaissance after years of a frosty atmosphere between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The longer term worry is that at a time when most of the world looks with hope to the future reality of a de-militarised Korean peninsula, the economic presence of India in the DPRK could be the gateway to a ‘lead from behind’ strategy by the US to militarily draw the DPRK closer to India and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) network which at present comprises Japan, Austria, India and the US. Of course the clear purpose of the Quad is to militarily “contain” China in the most provocative manner possible.
While Kim Jong-un is clearly not so unwise as to play fast and loose with his newly rekindled partnership with China, as a man who obviously wants the best for his country, Kim cannot be displeased with the gradually growing international bidding war for post-sanctions investment in the DPRK. Because of this, the US could use India as the ostensibly non-aligned Asia face to mask a more devious plan to draw the DPRK away from both China and Russia and towards a more US friendly set of Asian partners.
The key for the DPRK therefore is to learn from India what not to do in terms of surrendering non-aligned status based on the promises of short term economic gain. While historically the DPRK has formed its closest partnerships with fellow socialist nations, the DPRK is a country that managed to stay mostly neutral during the Sino-Soviet split of the post-1961 Cold War period, in spite of being a neighbour to both rivalling communist superpowers.
Of course in theory, China welcomes collective Asian partnerships and would by no means automatically scoff at an increased Indian presence in the DPRK. In many ways, China might actually want some Indian involvement in the DPRK as a means of demonstrating the possibility of de-escalation with India through mutually agreeable cooperation in nations that are on good terms with both Beijing and New Delhi. Just as both China and India are important partners of Myanmar, there is no reason why India and China (and Russia too) cannot be important future partners to an economically opened DPRK. The danger however lies in the fact that a straightforward economic partnership between the DPRK and India could easily be manipulated by the US into something far from straightforward or benign.
The US has in recent years demonstrated a skilled ability to play on existing Indian prejudices in order to turn every major Indian connectivity project with fellow Asian states into an overtly Sinophobic scheme which ultimately only serves to divide Asian states against one another with lose-lose consequences being the ultimate end game in respect of such meddlesome strategic thinking.
While it would be foolish for the DPRK to cut itself off from any economic partner, Pyongyang must also be aware that the India of today represents something of an off-shot of American strategic designs in Asia. The days of geopolitical neutrality in India are long over. Russia has already learnt this lesson, Iran will soon learn it and because of this, the DPRK has more than enough time to anticipate what might happen in the very near future when it comes to an expanding Indo-Korean partnership.