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‘Regardless of John Kerry’s personal priorities,Washington’s foreign policy pivot to Asia remains valid’

As Indian and South Korea mark 40 years of diplomatic relations this year,South Korean Ambassador JOON-GYU LEE talks

Written by Sudeep Paul |
April 17, 2013 2:05:14 am

As Indian and South Korea mark 40 years of diplomatic relations this year,South Korean Ambassador JOON-GYU LEE talks to Sudeep Paul about the future of bilateral ties and the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Excerpts:

Unlike Hillary Clinton,who played an important role in prioritising Asia,new US Secretary of State John Kerry chose to visit Europe first. He has also been on record earlier for being sceptical of Barack Obama’s focus on Asia. But now he has visited East Asia. How significant was this visit,given the crisis on the Korean Peninsula,and was it a reaffirmation of the US pivot to Asia?

Yes,of course. Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to East Asia was very timely and important when tensions were escalating because of North Korea’s sabre rattling. His visit reaffirmed the US security commitment to key allies and sent a clear signal to North Korea that any dangerous provocation will not be tolerated. Regardless of Kerry’s personal priorities,Washington’s foreign policy pivot around Asia remains valid.

How potent is Pyongyang’s nuclear threat and is the North capable of putting nuclear warheads on its missiles? Will South Korea consider the nuclear option,if North Korea doesn’t relent?

No. Going nuclear is not our option at all. Since we agreed with North Korea on the “Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” in 1991,we have been firmly committed to the agreement. On the other hand,North Korea broke its promise very easily and has developed nuclear weapons. We’re not sure of their nuclear capabilities at this moment. But we should take their nuclear threat very seriously because it not only has been the main source of tension and instability in East Asia,but may be a very serious threat to the security of the whole region.

Unlike Kim Jong-il,who seemed to know when to raise his rhetoric and when to calm down,Kim Jong-un is young and inexperienced. Does Seoul fear a miscalculation on Kim Jr’s part,leading to a misunderstanding?

We don’t see any big difference between the two. We have been living with the possibility of miscalculation for several decades. This might be a little worse than before,but nothing new at all. The best way to cope with it is to be “prepared”,not to be afraid. We’re sure they are not ready to make any big trouble. And they surely know this.

How does South Korea feel about its professionals being kept out of the Kaesong industrial JV?

We regret that North Korea is playing games with the Kaesong Industrial Region. It is the only remaining symbol of South-North collaboration. Although the North’s action may cause severe damage to small companies in the region,it has hardly any significance for the South’s economy. For the North,it may have a bigger significance,because they are closing the biggest source of hard currency they desperately need.

Coming to our bilateral ties,given India’s economic downturn,how do you expect bilateral trade volumes to fare in the near future? What would be a moderate and achievable level under the circumstances?

I’m optimistic. Since the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement,our bilateral trade volumes are increasing remarkably. I’m glad to note India’s exports to Korea are increasing sharply this year. I believe we can achieve the target of $40 billion by 2015.

South Korea was one of the first countries to take advantage of the opening of the Indian economy in 1991. In the above context,what’s the sentiment for investment in India from the South Korean perspective right now?

I’m telling Korean business leaders that they shouldn’t be sitting on the fence and should be coming to India right now. They seem to be closely watching the development in India. I hope the government of India moves forward in a way so that all those business circles can make up their mind. I’m also looking forward to seeing progress in the POSCO project. India should show its firm commitment by making it a success story of FDI and symbolic of India’s economic reforms. Bureaucratic delays and inconsistencies in rules and regulations,tax issues,are of course frustrating for businesspeople.

Former President Lee Myung-bak pitched for closer military cooperation between New Delhi and Seoul. How does the future look for India-South Korea strategic cooperation — after two decades of India’s own Look East policy — in the light of our common interest in keeping the sea lines of communication free and navigable? Do you see a more structured strategic community forming in the region?

Yes. It’s true that we’re very like-minded countries,sharing many complementarities. My eventual goal as Ambassador is to make our two countries best friends in the world. Since the establishment of the strategic partnership in 2010,Delhi and Seoul have developed ties in many fields,including sharing our strategic views in the region. We’re open-minded about extending this to a multilateral level,but it’s too early to talk about any strategic community in this region. The first thing to do is to increase contacts for confidence-building.

While everybody should benefit from the growth of the Chinese economy in the region,at the same time,is there any need for concern about China’s military expansion?

A grouping against China is not desirable. It’s better for us all to seek China’s peaceful rise and share the benefits of China’s flourishing economy.

If the islands’ disputes in East Asia persist for long,they might affect trade and national economies. What’s the best way forward in solving the problem?

The influence of the territorial disputes on trade is limited in the short term. But if they continue to escalate,there may be serious negative effects. No territorial dispute can be settled shortly. The countries concerned should admit this and minimise the negative impact of the disputes.

Since the global geopolitical and maritime focus has shifted to the Asia-Pacific,is it time for a country like South Korea to focus more and more on self-reliance in defence,not discounting US support and presence?

Anybody can neglect self-reliance. But few countries can defend themselves only through self-reliance. While we’re trying to strengthen our own capabilities,I think the importance of alliances,a strategic architecture and strategic cooperation with the countries concerned should be more emphasised than before.

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