A traditional bond

Print edition : February 07, 2014

India and the Republic of Korea: Engaged Democracies, By Skand R. Tayal, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New Delhi, 2014, Pages: 293, Price Rs. 795.

The book faithfully recounts the building of India-South Korea diplomatic relations, without missing the big picture.

WE in India associate South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK), with its internationally known brands such as the Hyundai car, the Samsung phone, and the LG computer, refrigerator, and other white goods. But, there is much more to the ROK and to India-ROK relations. The author of India and the Republic of Korea: Engaged Democracies, Skand Ranjan Tayal, is currently a visiting professor at the Department of East Asia Studies in the University of Delhi. He was India’s Ambassador in Seoul for three years from 2008. Obviously, the reader will have high expectations.

Fortunately, the author does not disappoint. It is unnecessary to say that this book must be read by all those who want to know more about Korea’s history and culture as well as about the two democracies. We all have noted with curiosity that so many Koreans share the family name Kim. President Kim Young-sam (1993-98) was succeeded by President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003). Thus, two out of the 11 Presidents have the family name Kim. North Korea had Kim Il Sung as its first President and Kim Jong-il as its next President. The current President is Kim Jong-un. The author narrates a legend to explain the rather high frequency of Kim as a family name:

King Kim Suro, the founder of Karak, or the Kaya kingdom, was advised by his courtiers to get married. He replied, “I was sent down from heaven to rule this land, and so my spouse will also descend from heaven at a divine command.” One day, a ship with a red sail and a red flag arrived carrying a beautiful princess, 16, and her attendants. She said she was from Ayuta (Ayodhya in India) and that her parents on the advice of a holy man, had sent her to marry the King of Karak. This occurred in 48 CE, much before Buddhism reached the Korean peninsula. The tombs of King Kim Suro and his Indian queen are located in the city of Gimhae twinned with Ayodhya. The Karak Clan Society has erected a memorial on the banks of the Sarayu river in India. The Kims claim that they are descendents of King Kim Suro and his Indian queen.

Buddhism is an ancient bridge between India and Korea. It reached Korea probably in the 4th century CE. There is much scholarly debate about the route it took. Some say it went directly from India and others say that it went via China. Monks from Korea started making pilgrimages to India from the 6th century onwards. Monk Hyonja, who came with two disciples, studied at Nalanda. The ROK is a multi-religious society with a secular polity. The prevailing ethos is an “amalgamation of Buddhist introspection, Christian service and Confucian order”. However, the spiritual bonds of Buddhism continue to provide sustenance to friendship and empathy between the ROK and India.

In Chapter 2, the reader gets a brief account of the history of Korea. Ki-tze, a refugee from China, is believed to have founded the first dynasty, which lasted from 1112 BCE to 116 BCE. It sealed the cultural influence of China over Korea. That dynasty was followed by the Three Kingdoms, Silla, Koryo, and Paekche, ruling parts of the peninsula simultaneously; eventually Silla absorbed the other two and ruled over a unified Korea. Later, Koryo overthrew Silla, to be dislodged by the Chosun dynasty, which lasted until 1910 when the Japanese took over. Koreans were so hostile to Westerners that the country earned the epithet of the “Hermit Kingdom” in the 19th century. The huge land mass of China practically prevented any trade between India and Korea.

Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru took interest in Korea. Gandhi noted the boycott of Japanese goods by the Chinese in Korea. On April 25, 1908, he wrote about it: “Such is the power of boycott and boycott is only one aspect of Satyagraha. If by itself, it can be so much stronger than 100s of guns, what may we not expect of Satyagraha?” There is a reference to the historic March First Movement against Japanese domination in Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter written on December 30, 1932. That movement started in 1919. In 1942, the Indian National Congress expressed solidarity with Koreans, who suffered under colonialism. The 1947 Asian Relations Conference in Delhi was attended by three delegates from Korea. The first Indian to go to Korea in the 20th century was a journalist, Shiv Prasad Gupta, who was there in the early 1920s. His travelogue is worth reading. He found a variation of the Indian caste system in Korea with six categories.

Rabindranath Tagore never visited Korea but has left an indelible imprint on the Korean mind. His works were translated into Korean in 1916, three years after he got the Nobel Prize. That year, while in Japan, Tagore met a number of Korean students. In 1929, on the 10th anniversary of the First March Movement, Tagore wrote a poem, “The Lamp of the East”, which ran thus:

In the golden age of Asia

Korea was one of its lamp-bearers

This lamp awaits to be lighted once again

For the illumination of the East.

In 2006, when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was on a state visit to the ROK, it was decided between him and his host to install a statue of Tagore in Seoul. However, the statue sent from India could not be installed as the city administration had second thoughts.

The Second World War ended in a manner that led to the division of Germany into West and East, with the latter claiming for a while to represent the whole of Germany. Similar was the case in Korea, with the ROK claiming for a while to represent the whole of Korea. The only difference is that while Germany got reunited in 1990, the division of Korea and the tension between the two states continue to be a threat to peace and security. With the hindsight of history, it is possible to see the prescient logic of Nehru who advocated election on a national basis. However, neither the United States nor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) wanted to cooperate with K.P.S. Menon, Chairman of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK). The author gives a rather brief account of the division of Korea and the outbreak of the Korean War. Perhaps, a longer account bringing out the authoritarian character of the rule of Syngman Rhee, the first President of the ROK, and the rigged election that put him in office would have been useful.

The folly of the U.S. stemming from its arrogance in dismissing Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai’s warning not to cross the 38th Parallel, and the role played by India, especially V.K. Krishna Menon, in finding a solution to the conundrum of the repatriation of the prisoners of war have been treated with much clarity. Seventy-six Korean prisoners of war were brought to India in 1954 as they did not want to go back to their country of origin. Five of them made India their home, and the author gives us their names, too. Young readers will be glad and proud to know that the country, under Nehru, had taken a prominent role in solving international issues. The reader-friendly style of the author will be appreciated much. The general public without much background of international relations can understand and enjoy the book, which brings out the professor in the author.

Period of apathy

The author correctly characterises as the “period of apathy” the years from 1953 to 1972. Syngman Rhee was followed by others who were also determined to prevent the emergence of democracy in the ROK. In 1962, the two Koreas opened consulates in India, which reciprocated only in 1968. In 1972, the ROK withdrew its claim to represent the whole of Korea. Following the rapprochement between the U.S. and China, the two Koreas agreed to talk about peace and unification. India announced its intention to establish diplomatic relations with the Koreas in 1973.

Interaction increased, but slowly. It “blossomed” between 1993 and 2003. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit in 1993 took the bilateral relations to a higher level. He sat down with the chiefs of Samsung, Hyundai and other big companies. The author gives a long but interesting account of the emergence of a strategic partnership between 2003 and 2012. He himself played a key role in this as the Indian Ambassador. But he is too modest to highlight his own role. However, the attentive reader will note the adroit manner in which he resolved the visa matter. Indians were finding it difficult to get visas. They had to wait outside the ROK’s embassy for hours, rain or shine. Tayal invited Kim Jong-Keun, the Ambassador-designate, to the Indian embassy and showed him the excellent arrangements there to deal with visa applicants. The ROK’s Ambassador was convinced and he changed the system on his taking charge in New Delhi.

The most interesting part is the epilogue, where the author shares his insights into the ROK’s society, customs and mindset. Education was given high priority. Starting with 30 per cent literacy in 1945, the ROK attained 100 per cent in 30 years, indeed some contrast with India. The language of the corporate world is invariably Korean. Women tend to have one child or no child and the population is declining. The hunger for success is deep and the Korean will leave no stone unturned until he gets what he wants. Considering their travails during the war and also under the dictatorship until democracy emerged, the reader will find it difficult not to admire the Korean grit and determination.

It is 40 years since the ROK and India established diplomatic relations. Tayal starts from the first century CE and brings us right up to our time. His book is a study in brevity, faithfulness to facts, and, even when he is meticulous, he never misses the big picture.

K.P. Fabian, a former Ambassador, is the author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.