India & tension in Korean peninsula

M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, September 30, 1996

There is a close connection between India’s claim to a seat in the UN Security Council and the recognition of our responsibility in contributing more actively to international crisis management. The situation in East Asia on the Korean peninsula gives New Delhi an opportunity to promote greater security and stability and work for the relaxation of military tensions. It would be prudent for India to ensure that its voice is heard clearly on the latest challenge to the peace process between North and South Korea and we should provide a vision and a new geopolitical discourse which rejects territorial conquest and domination. Indeed there are interesting parallels between contemporary challenges to international security in East Asia and South Asia. In our own region we have been trying to “channel conflict from the path of violence to that of non-violent bargaining and negotiation” and the same prescription is relevant to East Asia where the negative legacy of the cold war still produces highly threatening activities and the possibility of a spiralling armed conflict.

India’s assessment of the armed intrusion by a submarine off the coast of Kangnung on September 18 will play an important role in our position in other sensitive sectors. The Foreign Minister, Mr. I.K. Gujral, spoke the other day in the United Nations about the new challenges posed by forces of extremism, ethnic discord, terrorism and other dangers in the post cold war world, and it is clear that India’s international security policy will have to be crafted in terms of the changed political landscape and the need to find new mechanisms to cooperate effectively together.

Although the situation in East Asia offers an opportunity for a fair accommodation of interests between North and South Korea in the economic arena as well as in the context of provision of light water nuclear reactors to the North with the help of South Korean finance and technology, the cold war security-geared weltanchauung of Pyongyang has profound negative consequences. The conclusion for India as a potential Security Council member is to use every chance to contribute towards rapprochement of North and South Korea but to be quite forthright on the requirement of dismantling the old structures of military confrontation. An extremely negative scenario is likely to unfold if India maintains silence on the naval intrusion by North Korean agents or does not speak up against other violations of the Korean Armistice Agreement.

We do not need to do a balancing act in this area in order to ensure our leadership in the comity of nations. Our commitment to conflict resolution has nothing to do with the type of behaviour which involves extending the diplomatic olive branch while unleashing terrorism and commando raids. It is also difficult for India to overlook the obvious traces of the cold war mentality of infiltration, terrorism and other provocative activities which led to the failure of the South Korean Presidential visit to New Delhi in 1983 to materialise on account of the North Korean bombing outrage in Myanmar.

In recent months South Korea has been willing to redefine its security in terms which the international community found more acceptable. It is important that this trend should continue, although the goal of any strategic balance has to be that the North Korean army should be deterred from attacking its southern neighbour. Is the infiltration by a submarine an act of armed provocation or is it merely an espionage mission? India should use its influence to insist that Pyongyang should become a “good neighbour” by controlling its hawkish elements: India has enough experience with Pakistan’s security managers in persuading them to avoid passing the buck to India for their own internal political and economic failures. At times North Korea’s efforts to create turmoil in South Korea and advance the “revolutionary forces” appear to be directly related to the acute shortage of food, energy and consumer goods available to its population. New Delhi should urge North Korean security managers, either bilaterally or through the Non-aligned Movement of which North Korea is a member, to change the framework of its military doctrine which is out of place in the new security architecture which Asia must develop in the 21st century.

Although it is clear that the psychological barrier of mistrust has to be removed by both sides, yet in the case of countries like Pakistan and North Korea, the pragmatism needed in policy making can only come when the linkage between domestic issues and peacemaking process becomes clear to the military and political elites. The prerequisite for an inter-Korean dialogue or an Indo-Pakistan dialogue is not in any grand strategic design but in the adoption of new policy menus which recognise that Islamabad and Pyongyang’s security dilemmas are the result of past domestic political failures which have very little to do with threats emanating from India or South Korea.

The CTBT experience has shown that India cannot be pressured to give up its existing disarmament policy or to give up its nuclear options. India’s strength as a major world player will lie in its ability to develop long term policies whether in relation to nuclear policy or in the context of international security. New Delhi must show that it can resist hegemonic elements in the foreign policy of a super power like the United States and also use its influence to find satisfactory solutions for countries which although small powers are yet geared to military hegemony and have failed to adapt their internal conditions to the changed international environment. It may be that only a major change in the regime in Pyongyang will enable the military option for reunification to be finally given up. Still there is evidence to suggest that North Korea continues to make partial changes in its policies to develop limited openings to the outside world.

In the post CTBT era India will be able to justify its claim that it has adopted a principled stand to delegitimise nuclear weapons altogether only if its conduct is not hampered by ambivalence as to basic concepts of international law relating to the use of violence and military power. If we wish to focus the attention of the international community on Pakistan’s illegal cross-border activities in Kashmir, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to North Korea’s efforts to heighten military tension in the Korean peninsula. The diplomatic task before India is to fuse together its role in international security matters (in the context of its claim for Security Council membership) and its participation in the system of Asian Pacific cooperation. Working to establish lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula should have a high priority on our foreign policy agenda.

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