President Kim Dae Jung’s advent and Indo-Korean ties

M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, February 28, 1998

India’s stake in Korea is enormous, although our foreign policy elite spends little time or energy in articulating policies for adjusting to East Asia. Elements which stabilise or destabilise the East Asian regional system directly affect United States. Russia, China and Japan and should receive high level attention from New Delhi. South Korea is now an active economic partner of India and it is important for us to make up our own mind about the serious foreign exchange crisis which has destabilised financial flows in Seoul.

Alarmist commentary from elsewhere and doomsday arguments cannot however provide a sustainable basis for a nuanced approach to Asian problems which India must develop if it aspires to find a place for itself in the UN Security council as a permanent member. An occasional setback does not cancel out long standing efforts for economic growth and technological advancement and no mistake would be greater than to assume that South Korea will not be able to overcome its present economic hardships. In the interdependent, rapidly changing global economy India and Korea have a lot to learn from each other and it is in the interest of both sides to provide each other with policy-relevant information.

The snowballing of Korea’s foreign debts from $40 billion to $150 billion in just five years is a warning to Indian economic decision-makers that if a problem is left unattended it can provoke a serious long term crisis. The macro-economic policy coordination which is being undertaken by the new President, Mr. Kim Dae Jung, at a historic point of political transition also shows how a strong presidential voice for the national interest and for the common good can bolster the economy’s capacity to achieve damage control and persuade the people to accept burden-sharing.

A deepening of the Indo-Korean dialogue is the best answer to scepticism and Kim Dae Jung’s dedication to both democracy and market reforms makes him a dialogue partner who can shed light on some of the issues and problems which India faces as it safeguards its national interests in the so-called IMF Era. An exchange of Presidential level visits between New Delhi and Seoul would generate the high level attention necessary to ensure that Korean interest in Indian infrastructure projects is maintained and enhanced and Indian computer software developments are given a central role in the emerging India-Korea relationship.

The challenge for India and Korean economic diplomacy is to devise policies to offset the dampening effect of the Asian financial crisis and to even upgrade the target of $3 billion for Korean investment by the year 2000 which was agreed upon during the last Presidential visit to India in 1996.

Regardless of who wins the General elections under way in India today, preparation should begin at official levels for widening the horizons of Indo-Korean economic relations. Kim Dae Jung has mounted a bold challenge to overcome the resistance to economic reform by skilfully calibrating public policy and private enterprise. A joint Indo-Korean task force should be set up to produce policy recommendations on macro-economic stability in Asia and it should begin with a comparative study of the programmes of structural reforms in both the countries. Kim Dae Jung’s ideas on foreign trade, economic growth, technological development and the role of foreign capital should be taken seriously in India.

His chief economic advisor, You Jong-keun ruled out the possibility of Kim Dae Jung resorting to authoritarianism which is sometimes recommended and practised in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia in both the political and economic sphere: “The era of strong-armed intervention, however, is over. The people have witnessed bankruptcy of the interventionist regime and rejected dictatorship on both the political and economic front. President Kim Dae Jung, a life long freedom fighter who refused to cooperate with dictators even under the threat of death, will open a new era of true democracy and free markets.”

New Delhi and Seoul have a common agenda in curbing monopolistic tendencies in both the private and public sectors, (Kim Dae Jung’s structural adjustment is chiefly directed at the “chaebol” conglomerate monopolies), and in utilising the real opportunities for leap-frogging in fields such as information and telecommunications and by coordinated action in multilateral systems.

India and Korea can also come together to put pressure on Japan to play an optimum role in tackling the financial and economic crisis in Asia. The intellectual climate for Korea’s international relations will be conditioned by Kim Dae Jung’s reputation as a scholar and by his freedom from the platitudes which have guided some of his predecessors. He has often expressed his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and has related his understanding of political and social issues to both historical and contemporary Indian thought. He also has a sophisticated outlook on European and American thought and practice of international affairs.

He is aware of the full dimensions of distrust and suspicion between North and South Korea and he will spare no efforts to create a framework for serious negotiations on substantive issues. If India shows more understanding of the history and culture of Korea to an unprecedented extent India can play an innovative role in the ensuing dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang. Hitherto both countries have perceived each other as sources of economic opportunity. With the advent of Kim Dae Jung, the time is ripe to extend the agenda to questions of stability and instability in the Asia-Pacific region.
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