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Changing Regional Dynamics: Close Scrutiny of India-South Korea Axis


As the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region continues to shift fast, India and South Korea are stressing on strengthening their bilateral relations and engage on a close level to boost development within their regions and encourage people to people interaction. The convergence of interests between both nations has compelled them to work together to address the existing as well as emerging strategic and security challenges. The past two decades have been a productive journey of engagement between India and South Korea, as numerous MoUs and bilateral policies were ratified. For Instance, MoU between the Korean National Police Agency and Ministry of Home Affairs on Combating Transnational Crime and Developing Police Cooperation, MoU on Trade Remedies, MoU on Start-up Cooperation, etc. The Republic of Korea and India are forging a deeper and stronger partnership and the aim of this Research Article is to study and analyse these advancements and inform the readers.


Relations between India and the Republic of Korea have made great strides in recent years and have become truly multidimensional, driven by great convergence of interests, mutual goodwill, and high-level exchanges.While revitalizing their relationship may have taken New Delhi and Seoul four decades (1973-2018), the two are in the midst of a multidimensional and transformative relationship.

Bilateral relations, especially in the past decade, have grown strong and multidimensional, encompassing a wide range of interests, including nuclear disarmament, maritime security, regional economic cooperation, counterterrorism, and energy cooperation. The axis of India and South Korea could be of great value at a time when the world is going through a period of uncertainty; this dynamic bilateral partnership can significantly contribute to peace, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly by strengthening economic partnership and deepening security relations. Open market policies in South Korea are finding a clear echo with the liberalization of the Indian economy. The "Act East Policy" of India complements the "New Southern Policy" of South Korea and adds new content and momentum to the bilateral cooperation between the two countries in all areas of engagement. There are many complementarities at different levels between the two countries; for example, technological advancements and manufacturing capabilities in South Korea can aid economic growth and human resource development in India.

However, the potential of the partnership has not been fully tapped. There lies a great potential in the field of Maritime cooperation, and economic partnership, which is stuck at $22 Billion annually. The India-South Korea partnership offers space for a deeper and broader strategic engagement.

India-Korea Relations: Historical Perspective

Although India has historic trade and cultural ties with the Middle East, Central Asia, Tibet and Southeast Asia, the Himalayan natural barrier and Chinese dominance have limited its direct contacts with Northeast Asia. The only meaningful connections established were during the Korean War (1950-1953), as India played a crucial and decisive role in Korean affairs after the latter's independence in 1945. India's first foreign minister, K P S Menon, served as chair of the nine-member United Nations commission that was created in 1947 to oversee elections in Korea. The successful general elections were held for the first time in South Korea in 1948 leading to the establishment of the Republic of Korea on 15th August 1948.

While the relationship between India and South Korea did not begin until 1962 as the two countries established consular relations it was only upgraded to ambassador level in 1973. Over the course of time, Korea’s liberal market policies and the popular quest for democracy created natural rapprochement between nations. The main turning point between the bilateral relations was during an important visit by the then Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam to the South Korean capital, Seoul, in February 2006, which opened the door to a more vital phase in relations between India and South Korea. This resulted in the launch of a Joint Task Force to conclude a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was operationalised on 1 January 2010. It also led to the strategic partnership between the two countries, which was later upgraded to ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ in 2015.

Over the 46 years of the two countries’ diplomatic relations, their relations and ties in different sectors have strengthened, especially during the tenure of both countries’ current leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Commonalities between the two nations

Shared Values of Democracy –

India and South Korea, as democracies, share common values ​​and have converging interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Both the nations have experienced external interferences in the aftermath of World War II as well as internal interferences in its country’s future. For instance, an undivided India got freedom from Britain in August 1947, while the Korean peninsula was freed from Japanese occupation in August 1948. Similarly, while India got divided into India and Pakistan, the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea.

As two mature and vibrant democracies, their relations are based on shared values and common interests, including adherence to democratic principles. India is the parliamentary Democratic Republic in which the President of India is the head of state and the Prime Minister of India is the head of government. The Republic of Korea is the presidential Democratic Republic in which the President of the Republic of Korea is the head of the state and the multi-party system. Both nations share similar political systems, where the government exercises Executive power and Legislative power and the Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Shared Cultural Heritage –

It is pertinent to note that the historical ties between the two nations date back to ancient times. According to "SamgukYusa" or "The Heritage History of the Three Kingdoms", Hur Hwang-ok became the wife of King Suro of Geumgwan Gay, after having arrived by boat from a distant kingdom (Ayodhya), making her a legendary first queen of Geumagwan Gaya.

A travelogue on India was written by a Korean Buddhist Monk from Silla Kingdom, Hyecho or Hong Jiao. He visited India from 723 to 729 AD. In his travelogue, "Pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India", he gives a vivid account of Indian culture, politics & society, including food habits, languages & climate.

Also, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, composed a short but evocative poem - "The Lamp of the East" - in 1929, about Korea's glorious past and its bright and promising future.

Resonance of Act East Policy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy –

In 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in unveiled the 'New Southern Policy' which focused on strengthening economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia and India. This move was made with the intention to reduce export dependence on China and United States and establish alternative trade structures in the region. The New Southern Policy emphasizes the so-called “3P Community,” which stands for a community of people, prosperity, and peace.

Likewise, since 2014, India has been aiming to strengthen its ties with the eastern neighbours to reduce dependence on its Western counterparts, specifically through the 'Act East Policy'. The focus of this policy can be simplified in 4C’s - Culture, Commerce, Connectivity and Capacity Building. Additionally, India's geographical proximity and cultural similarity to Eastern nations give it a great advantage in establishing commerce relations with them.

Modi’s Act East Policy and Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy (NSP), both give importance to the acceleration of economic and strategic relations with each other. The NSP focuses to diversify its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India, to bring them at par with the major powers – like Russia, America and China. The “3P Community”, modelled under the New Southern Policy, aims to link and diversify its relationship with ASEAN countries and India to achieve economic interdependence. On similar lines, the Act East Policy based on 4C’s envisions better connectivity with the South-East countries and expand the economic influence of India in these regions. This move aims to project India as a leading power rather than just a balancing power. The 3P’s and 4C’s has led to a convergence of interests and energies between the two countries.

Contours of Cooperation

Commerce and Trade Relations –

Trade and economic relations between India and South Korea gained momentum after the implementation of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2010. Bilateral trade between the two countries in 2011 exceeded $ 20.5 billion, registering a growth of 70 per cent over two years. As part of the Bilateral trade, India's share in Korea's global trade was 1.89% in 2018, and India's contribution to Korea's global imports increased from 0.78% in 2001 to 1.10% in 2018. In fact, India is among Korea's top 20 sources of imports and the seventh-largest export market as of 2018. India and South Korea also set a goal to increase bilateral trade to $ 50 billion by 2030 from $ 20 billion in 2017-18 and to rapidly complete negotiations to update the ROK-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).

Recently, South Korea has demonstrated an eagerness to partner in leading India's initiatives, including Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, Start-up India, and Smart Cities. In 2018, Samsung formed a new manufacturing facility in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, which is possibly the largest manufacturing unit of Samsung mobile phones anywhere in the world, reflecting the South Korean partnership in the "Make in India" program. Similarly, both the nations signed an MoU on cooperation in the field of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises to boost their competitiveness in the global markets, while focusing on domestic manufacturing initiatives.

Political Relations –

In February 2006, former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam visited the Republic of Korea and his visit led to the launch of the bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was ratified on January 1, 2010. Following this, Korean President Lee visited India as the chief guest for India's Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2010. This was when the bilateral relations between the two countries were raised to the level of strategic partnership.

The two countries signed the Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreementin 2011 during the state visit of then-President Pratibha Patil to the Republic of Korea. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to South Korea in 2015, bilateral relations were upgraded to a "special strategic partnership". In a joint statement, PM Modi and President Park Geun-hye agreed to establish a "2 + 2" consultation mechanism in the Secretary / Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence.

Defence Relations –

India and South Korea have deepened their bilateral relations in the defence sector through holding military exercises and training as part of efforts to expand their partnership in defence cooperation. The two countries hold a joint anti-piracy, search and rescue exercise, Sahyog-Hyeoblyeog, which is conducted between the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Korean Coast Guard (KCG) to improve the interoperability between the forces and monitor maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region. Besides holding more mega exercises with the Korean Armed Forces, New Delhi is also urging South Korean defence companies to invest in defence technology and manufacture defence equipment in India.

India and the Republic of Korea worked out a military logistics agreement during the visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Seoul in 2019. The two countries drew up a roadmap to take bilateral cooperation in the defence sector to a new level. The roadmap listed several proposed areas of cooperation in the ground systems, air and marine systems sectors, cooperation in research and development, cooperation in testing, certification and quality assurance.

Recently, South Korean Defence Minister, Suh Wook, was on a three-day visit to India and met his counterpart, Mr Rajnath Singh. Both the nations held conclusive talks wherein they agreed to continue producing and exporting joint military hardware, enhancing intelligence information sharing and enhancing cooperation in the electronic and space fields as part of the overall expansion of defence and security relations. The ministers also discussed maritime cooperation as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy and cooperation in the joint production of various land and naval systems.

Cultural Ties –

To boost people-to-people relations, India and South Korea established an Indian Cultural Centre (ICC) in Seoul in April 2011. ICC works towards broadening the base of appreciation for Indian culture by, for instance, teaching Indian dance forms to school students in South Korea, or organizing experimental sessions focusing on Indian cuisine. Similarly, the Republic of Korea has established the Korean Cultural Centre (KCC) in New Delhi which aims to provide open cultural space to all Indian citizens, where they can experience various Korean culture through performances, exhibitions, movies, books, Korean language classes, Taekwondo, etc.

Many aspects of Korean, as well as Indian culture, have emerged as a critical point of consumption among the people residing in both nations. For instance, there is a growing fondness for Hindi Bollywood movies in South Korea and the K-Pop music industry in India. Films, music and cuisine among other cultural connections have huge potential to nudge and deepen relationships between people and can serve as a bridge between India and South Korea.

Also, to bridge the distance gap and boost connectivity between both nations, various airlines are available which directly connect major cities across India and South Korea. In 2014, India extended the visa-on-arrival (VoA) facility for South Korean tourists to boost people to people relations.

Way Forward

In a Multipolar world, India’s importance to South Korea is growing since various regional powers have risen up in the South Asian region. Also, South Korea's shift in the perception of its economic connection with the major powers in the world is influencing policymakers in Seoul to upgrade and establish relations with other Asian powers, primarily India. Against this background, policymakers in both the nations and their governments are taking various steps to upgrade relations with each other.

In this regard, India should take advantage of this opportunity since South Korea can be a major economic partner in India’s economic growth. Considering the developments in the Asia-Pacific region, India needs to nurture its relations with Seoul and strengthen its bilateral policies to foster peace and stability in the region.


1. See backgrounder “India-Republic of Korea Bilateral Relations”, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), 2017.

2. Kesavan, KV. "How Moon Jae-in's Visit Can Provide a New Impetus to India-Korea Relations." DailyO. July 11, 2018.

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5. See backgrounder "Korea (ROK) Relations", Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), 2014.

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7. See backgrounder “India-Republic of Korea Bilateral Relations”, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), 2017.

8. Sahoo, N. (n.d.). Reinvigorating India-South Korea relations: Can Buddhism, Bollywood, K-Pop and Democracy help? ORF.

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