From culture to commerce, blossoming of India-South Korea ties

korea-consul1“Do you know the story of how the Indian Princess of Ayodhya married a Korean King named Suro?” Kyungsoo Kim, the Consulate General of South Korea in Chennai, asked me as I sat down for a free-wheeling conversation with him. When I replied in the negative, the ambassador smiled and began to narrate the captivating story about how the India-Korea relationship began.

Legend has it that the princess’ parents had a dream about a handsome king in the faraway land of Suro. The dream showed that the Korean king had not yet found his queen and the Indian princess was, therefore, asked by her father to set out to distant lands to find the man of her fate. The Samguk Yusa, which is a chronicle of Korea’s

Three Kingdoms, indicates that Heo Hwang-ok (as the princess is known in Korea) sailed to the Korean Peninsula, carrying a stone, with which she claimed to have calmed the waters. According to the chronicle, she arrived on a boat and married King Suro of Gaya in the year 48 CE. She was the first queen of Geumgwan Gaya, and is considered an ancestor by several Korean lineages. While the authenticity of the story hasn’t quite been confirmed, archaeologists have actually discovered a stone with two fish kissing each other in Korea – the fish are a unique cultural heritage linked to a royal family in Ayodhya. The stone is evidence that there were active commercial exchanges between the two sides after the princess’s arrival here. “So you see, India and Korea have established good relations which are many centuries old”, the Korean ambassador remarked.

Building upon centuries-old relations, India and the Republic of Korea, better known for iconic brands like Samsung and Hyundai, have modernised their relations and signed a clutch of pacts in areas ranging from trade and investment to culture, counter-terrorism and civil nuclear energy. South Korea President Park Geun-hye’s recent visit to India saw a deepening of multi-faceted ties, with the two countries signing nine pacts in diverse areas.

In a wide-ranging conversation with India Writes (, Korea’s Consul General in Chennai, Mr. Kyoungsoo Kim, speaks about the blossoming of India-South Korea relations over the years, the recent thrust on expanding economic and strategic ties, and the future of civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

(Excerpt from the interview)

korea-park2Q) President Park Geun-Hye visited India between January 15-18, 2014. How has her visit helped deepen relations between India and ROK?

A) Yes, the president’s visit has definitely helped in enhancing the scope of bilateral relations between India and Korea. The two countries had already signed the ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement in 2010 and since then there has been a lot of diplomatic and political engagement between leaders from both sides. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already visited Korea before to take part in the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 and also when we hosted the G-20 Summit. The January visit has been our president’s first trip to India (since her election in December 2012) and we consider your country a very important one for Korea. The president and Dr. Singh held several important discussions on a number of topics this time and we ended up signing nine  Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with India to build cooperation in different sectors.

Q) The talks between the two leaders proposed the strengthening of communication channels military and security areas. How do the two countries propose to do that?

CG: Recently, one of our naval ships Choe Yeong, a famous ship in Korea, arrived at the Cochin port after conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. However, we faced some trouble and had to dock in Kerala because of it. When I met the ship’s captain Choi Sung Mok, he told me that the Korean ship had been treated in a friendly manner in India and that he and the crew were not hassled in any way. The incident in Cochin showed us that there was great potential for conducting joint military naval exercises between India and Korea and we hope to facilitate them soon in the coming years. The Indian navy is renowned for its might and its strength lies in its numbers. However, recently you have had a series of mishaps – possibly because of the technology used. Korean ship building technology is one of the best in the world and joint naval exercises with India could help both countries. Another advantage that these joint military exercises would have is that they would not pose a threat to any of the other countries. For instance, if India were to conduct joint military exercises with say Japan, then it is likely that China is going to consider them as a threat. But joint exercises between India and Korea would hardly be identified as a threat by other nations. Countries know that Korea is a small nation and believes in the principle of peaceful coexistence and mutual cooperation (though not at the expense of preparedness for war). Therefore, any military exercises conducted jointly by India and Korea would only help in building a communication mechanism them and provide a win-win situation for both countries.

Nuclear Energy: ‘Great scope for cooperation’  

Q) How do you look at the prospects of civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries?

A) Like India, Korea, too, has developed its own nuclear technology and we are primarily looking at cooperation in research and development with India in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Cooperation with India is now easy as both countries have signed a Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement in July 2011. However, we had been dragging our feet over the matter for quite some time before that. I remember that I was on the team that helped draft the nuclear agreement between the two countries and it is going to be exciting to see the fruits of our labour. I foresee a great deal of cooperation taking place over building civilian nuclear reactors, heavy water and sharing of essential knowledge and expertise between the two countries in the field of nuclear energy.

‘Korea needs India’s IT Power’

Q) There is a locus of focus on cyber security –- India and the RoK signed two MoUs in this regard. What is the reason for this emphasis?

A) The reason for this is very simple- Look at the vast number of hackers! In Korea, every 5-6 months, we hear news about lapses in cyber security and how a lot of confidential information is disclosed in the process. Cyber security is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed by both nations and there is huge synergy possible here between India and Korea. And I am also talking about the private sector here. Like in India, we have a number of electronic and IT giants back home whose businesses depend on cyber transfers on security. India and Korea have signed two MoUs in this regard because we Koreans need a lot of knowledge transfer from your booming IT sector.

Raising the bar for economic ties

Q) Both countries have aimed at expanding bilateral trade to USD 40 billion by 2015. Is that a realistic target considering that trade between the two plummeted to USD 18.834 million in 2012?

korea-visitA) Actually the low trade figures have to be understood in the context of the recent economic recession. Countries across the world are grappling with the aftermath of the recession and this has been very difficult, because the economy has been saturated for not just Korea but other countries as well. In a state, where every country is trying to deal with heavy economic pressure, it is only logical that bilateral trade will be adversely affected. So going back to your question, I would say that a bilateral trade target of USD 40 billion is a little too ambitious to achieve in two years’ time. But we cannot afford to dismiss its potential. If economic conditions improve, then forget 40 billion, India and Korea have the capacity to reach a target of USD 200 billion as well.

Q) How does the RoK view India as a market?

A: Let me tell you a story here. Back in the 1990s, when I was a young diplomat there were reportedly only five Korean families here in Chennai. There was hardly any interaction between Indian and Korean companies and opportunities were rather limited. Despite this, a Korean textile company known as Ewha looked at establishing a base in India. It was a very difficult time for the company because if Indians were dissatisfied with their price, they would not even be given a chance to explain the advantages of their products. In the beginning Ewha started to sell sewing machines in Hyderabad, but could sell only a limited number. But gradually business improved and today they have offices across Delhi, Bombay and other cities in India. Even, another textile chaebol has purchased a stake in Mudra. So you see, companies like Ewha didn’t look at expanding base with China or America, they turned to India first. No doubt the U.S and China are Korea’s biggest trading partners, but Korea considers India to be a huge investment market and is very important to us.

The problem I think is that both countries need to be made aware of this potential. In my meetings with the companies and diplomats here, I have realised that the Chambers of Commerce in India and Korea don’t quite have sufficient knowledge about each other’s practices and methods. There is a deficit of knowledge and interaction between the two – and I hope to change that. Take for instance your raw materials and labour force. India has an abundance of both, while Korea doesn’t. However, what we lack in resources, we make up for in technology and expertise. Thus, there is plenty of scope for cooperation between the two countries in terms of trade and commerce.

Given the cheap price of labour here and abundance of raw materials here, there is a lot of motivation for Korean companies to invest in India. From electronics, textiles and IT, we have now invested greatly in sectors like automobiles, tourism, online internet gaming, steel (through POSCO) and even agriculture & food processing. For example, you’ll use every part of the coconut – from its stem, leaf and fruit, yet there is a still a long way to go in terms of processing technology. Koreans have exactly the right expertise for it and we hope to promote the exchange of technology and resources. By investing in your resources, we not only expand our business networks but also help in the creation of jobs locally. Thus, unlike other countries, Korea gives every party in the process a fair share of gaining profits. India offers us a huge market to export our products and we hope to explore its potential further. There is a lot of completion from Chinese and Japanese companies here, but we are confident of managing well here.

Culture Connects

Q) What are views on people-to-people exchanges between India and South Korea?A): Ah! Let me tell you a secret here. In Korea, there is a lot of emphasis placed on American education. However, very few families can afford it as that kind of schooling is rather expensive. So, a lot of families in Korea have started to send their children to India to study in international schools here. These schools offer good courses in English and are relatively cheaper, so there you have -people-to-people exchanges starting at a very early age! But on a more serious note, there has been an increase in the number of people-to-people exchanges between India and Korea in recent times. Both countries have reported an increased influx of tourists, artists, students and businesspersons over the last few years and we are quite keen to ensure that these exchanges continue.

Q) With the establishment of cultural centres in India and Korea (the Inko Centre in Chennai, Korean Cultural Centre in Delhi and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Korea), how do you view the future of cultural relations between the two countries?

korea-bollyA) In my view they share an exciting future. Korean plays and dramas have garnered significant attention in China, Thailand and other countries around the world. However, things have been relatively quiet in India – we are hoping to change that through the establishment of cultural centres in India and Korea. I am told that internet users in India love watching Korean soap operas and movies and back in Korea too, Indian movies have a huge fan following. I recently saw a play called ‘Beyond Binary’ in Bangalore which explored complex subjects like sexuality and had the performers even speaking in Korean. It was wonderful to see such collaborations. I have had the opportunity to interact with other artistes from Korea and India and they report that performances in each other’s countries are rather demanding and mutual learning therefore takes place, which is great. Given the huge market for culture and the large number of patrons and supporters, we are likely to see culture being a positive influence on bilateral relations between India and Korea

Q) Lastly, how would you sum up the future of India-Korea relations…

A) You know, the word ‘ingkko’ in Korean means lovebirds. When said quickly, it sounds remarkably like ‘In-Ko’ which could be said to stand for India and Korea.  Given that we appear to be lovebirds in literary terms, I would say that the two countries are likely to have great friendly relations in the future.

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