New Delhi and Seoul Strengthen Ties

India’s bilateral relations with the Republic of Korea attained a new high when the two sides signed an agreement on nuclear energy technology on 25 July, 2011 during Indian President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Seoul. This is the second key agreement signed between the two countries following the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) of 2009 which came into effect a year later. While the two agreements sport a major uptrend in fostering New Delhi-Seoul bilateral relations, the signing of the latest deal marks Korea’s entry to India’s nuclear energy space as the latter’s ninth partner. Besides, Patil and her Korean counterpart Lee Myung-Bak discussed ways to “add substance and content to India-Korea relations”, as regards their “strategic partnership”. The deal has been described “historic” by Myung-Bak.

The agreement with Korea is similar to other civil nuclear cooperation deals that India has struck with various other countries. The agreement would enable Koran firms to enter Indian market and partner with Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) of India for building nuclear power stations. The Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO), has already been seeking cooperation with NPC to enter the Indian nuclear power plant construction space. The agreement, signed by Srikumar Banerjee, secretary, department of atomic energy and Kim Sung-Hwan, minister of foreign affairs and trade, for their respective sides, would be of common advantage to both countries and was thus a win-win situation. Only three rounds of talks were required to reach the agreement, the last in December 2010.

It could be recalled that Seoul and New Delhi had started talks over civil nuclear cooperation at a meeting between President Myung-Bak and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Hanoi summit of Asean in October 2010. Korea intends to export nuclear technology to India and its target is to export 80 such reactors to several countries by the end of 2030. Korea, at present, has 21 reactors which provide over 39 per cent of its power. It plans to increase the number of reactors to 56 by 2020. While India plans to erect over 40 nuclear reactors by 2032, Korea intends to export the light water reactor technology.

Korea, expectedly, is upbeat on emerging as a major player in the arena of international nuclear commerce. Korean firms, in 2009, had won an $18.6 billion order for building four nuclear power plants in UAE, beating the French, Japanese and the US in the bidding process. Korea, in fact, has established itself as a major supplier of cheap nuclear hardware. From India’s point of view, the deal would provide an alternative supply chain as regards nuclear reactors, besides components including giant forgings.

The importance of the Indo-Korean nuclear agreement lies on that fact that India would be able to tap Korea’s nuclear expertise. This would take off the pressure from the Indo-Japan nuclear deal. India is fully aware of domestic compulsions that bog down Japanese premier Naoto Kan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Kan government has decided to discard nuclear energy in phased manner so as to allay the anti-nuclear sentiment of the public. New Delhi is eager to allow negotiations with Tokyo proceed at the pace the latter is comfortable with. Importance of the deal with Tokyo is dependent on the fat that Japan holds licenses for key components of a nuclear reactor and without it, several western countries will find it hard to the enter India’s nuclear space.

Other than nuclear and economic cooperation, Indo-Korean relations are developing on other levels also. Patil discussed possible cooperation in peaceful use of outer space. New Delhi is looking ahead to launch Korean satellites on its rockets. External affairs minister had expressed interests on the same line during his visit to Seoul in June 2010. Korea has conceded that Indian “facilities are of high quality and are available at competitive prices.”

Defence ties are looking up as well, particularly given the fast deteriorating security situation in East and the South China Sea. Besides coast guard and naval cooperation, there are several prospects for co-producing defence equipment, joint research and development and transfer of technology. New Delhi also plans to depute a defence attaché to its embassy in Seoul. Going ahead, the two countries can engage themselves in joint maritime exercises. This would go to a considerable extent to discount the Chinese presence not only in the vicinity of Korea but the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean as well.

India is also seeking greater access to the Korean market for IT services and Indian pharmaceuticals. Another major point of Patil’s visit was signing of the MoU on media exchange and a deal on administrative arrangements for providing social security to those working in Korea and India.

Korean companies have found the investment climate in India to be attractive. The ideal approach for the Korean firms will be to make India a base for manufacturing operations, including its exports to third countries. Both New Delhi and Seoul have agreed to work unitedly for reaching a maritime shipment accord as well as a treaty for preventing double taxation at the earliest possible date that will be beneficial to both the sides. Other than these, a series of several cultural events are on the cards to mark 2011 as the year of bilateral cultural exchanges between the two countries. If these objectives are to be realised, the frequency of direct India-Korea flights needs to be increased. This would enable enhanced people-to-people contact. As a result, the present agreement on civil aviation between the two countries needs amendment for extending “fifth freedom rights” to each other’s carriers.

It can be undoubtedly said that though other issues including defence, civil aviation, culture and economic relations were on agenda, the key point in Patil’s Seoul visit was conclusion of the agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. The deal is slated to extend the robustness to Indo-Korean bilateral ties. If the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was the most significant achievement of 2010, then the nuclear deal was the defining outcome of 2011.

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