Indian mediation in Korean War
On the occasion of 67th anniversary of the war, India’s forgotten role in Korean War resolution needs a reckoning. In this context, involving India in the Northeast Asian peace process will be instrumental in strengthening India-South Korea relations
Some called it an “ideological war” between Communist and non-Communist blocs, some others called it a war of “innocent Koreas”. What emerged to be the goriest war after World War II commenced on June 25, 1950, with the North allegedly attacking the South, resulting in the death of more than 2.5 million people in the course of the war. The fallout of the war still persists over the Korean peninsula, and war clouds still loom over the region. The Six-Party Talks mechanism, created in 2003, to check North Korea’s nuclearisation effort has been an outcome of the divided politics between the major powers, which have gone nowhere. It is time to recollect the role of unnoticed powers in the Korean War, on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the war, especially when South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in wants to create peace in Korean Peninsula. India’s forgotten role in the resolution of the Korean War, therefore, needs a reckoning.
After Korea’s Independence in 1945, India was chairman of a nine-member UN Commission that was set up to hold elections in Korea. The success of the election in the South was the seed behind the formal establishment of the Republic of Korea (RoK) on August 15, 1948, a day which coincides with India’s Independence Day. Playing a role to support peace, India maintained a balance between the two Koreas, even though India’s diplomatic effort was marginal during those years. Voting in favour of the United States resolution over North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, India supported the declaration to term North Korea as an “aggressor”. But when the US forces crossed the 38th parallel without UN approval and sought to have a resolution passed to declare China as an “aggressor”, India decided to vote against the proposed resolution. India played a mediatory role during the war, and both North and South Korea accepted the India-sponsored resolution to end the war. As a result, a ceasefire was declared on July 27, 1953. Sending medical aid and planning a formula for repatriation for the soldiers were other notable aspects of India’s contribution in the Korean Peninsula. India also chaired the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission.
Sixty-seven years have passed to the historic Korean War; a peaceful resolution to the Korean crisis is still missing. The Six-Party talks regarding the Korean peninsula are still hampered by major-power politics. China and Russia seem to offer a shield to North Korea, while the United States and Japan are on the side of South Korea. The talks have virtually been dead since 2009. Perhaps the time has come to expand the number of dialogue partners. India’s historic role needs a review, especially as a mediator between the two Koreas. India’s relations with South Korea are “special and strategic”; India also maintains a working relation with North Korea.
Given this, India and South Korea should have a thoroughgoing discussion on Northeast Asia. In his inaugural speech on May 10, 2017, Moon Jae-in said that he would not “rest until peace is settled in Korean Peninsula”. But to be effective, to address the Northeast Asian security crisis, the parties involved must break the barrier of Seoul’s traditional prism of only contacting the Six-Party dialogue partners. To improve its strategic weight, South Korea needs new Asian partners beyond China. India has always advocated for de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and asked for dialogue and peaceful resolution of the crisis. This is similar to what South Korea is asking over the years.
Policy designs such as Sunshine Policy and Northeast Asia Peace Initiative (NAPCI) have been the main policy directives for South Korea over the last two decades. Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was primarily North Korea focused, where the emphasis was on maintaining deterrence, to initiate dialogue, and bringing peace between the two Koreas. India was not considered as an influencing factor in the Sunshine Policy. India did emerge prominently in Roh Moo-hyun’s Presidency, where his visit to India witnessed a new level of contacts emerging between India and RoK, resulting in a “long-term Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity”. The Northeast Asian peace process was never a discussion point between New Delhi and Seoul.
President Lee Myung-bak’s New Asia Initiative in 2009 underlined South Korea’s resolve to cooperate with Asian countries, but the engagement was more sectoral. India never figured prominently even though India and RoK established a “strategic partnership” during President Lee’s visit to India in January 2010. Likewise, President Park Geun-hye’s NAPCI lacked a regional ambition of engaging with India even though the relationship was upgraded to a “special strategic partnership”. The NAPCI initiative was limited to the US, China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, and DPRK. NAPCI did involve extra-regional multilateral bodies like NATO, OSCE, the EU, and the UN, but did not see merit in involving India as an actor in the Northeast Asian peace process. A strategic convergence was drawn between India’s Act East policy and South Korea’s NAPCI, but it did not really translate into any concrete cooperation, especially on Northeast Asia.
A special partnership needs to be built on special accounts. Both South Korea and India need to have a fresh look at the history of the Korean War, especially at a time when North Korea continues to defy international norms. India’s mediating role and contribution to peace-making during the Korean War need an objective reckoning currently. Importantly, Seoul’s new administration must introspect why the Northeast Asian peace process has deteriorated. A closer look at the Korean War history and India’s contribution to peace is a valuable reference point in this context. Involving India in the Northeast Asian peace process will be instrumental in strengthening India-RoK relations.
(The writer is Research Fellow and Head of the East Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)
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