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Connecting people and deepening ties: India-South Korea relations

Published: 22nd Nov, 2021


The recent Korean drama Squid Games has broken all Netflix records and left its audience in awe. While all the drama actors are earning praises for their impactful performance, a Korea-based Indian actor, Anupam Tripathi, is gaining a little extra affection from the fans due to his portrayal of an innocent and soft-spoken Pakistani migrant worker, Ali, in the drama.

The success of Squid Games and the casting of Anupam Tripathi have brought India and South Korea closer.  Both India and South Korea stand to gain strategically and economically from the deepening of people-to-people ties.


  • India-Republic of Korea (RoK) relations have made rapid strides in recent years.
  • While it may have taken New Delhi and Seoul many decades to reinvigorate their relationship, the two are today in the midst of a multidimensional and transformative tie.

Historical Connection

  • According to "SamgukYusa" or "The Heritage History of the Three Kingdoms" written in the 13th century, a Princess from Ayodhya (Suriratna) came to Korea, married King Kim-Suro, and became Queen Hur Hwang-ok in the year 48 AD.
  • Korean Buddhist Monk Hyecho (or Hong Jiao) visited India from 723 to 729 AD and wrote the travelogue "Pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India" which gives a vivid account of Indian culture, politics & society.
  • Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore also composed a short but evocative poem – 'Lamp of the East' - in 1929 about Korea's glorious past and its promising bright future. He wrote:

"In the golden age of Asia Korea was one of its lamp bearers,
And that lamp is waiting to be lit once again
For the illumination of the East."

Thus, it becomes important to assess the present state of the relationship shared by both nations.


Where is South Korea focused (historically)?

  • For most of its history, South Korea has kept its diplomacy focused predominately on major powers around the Korean Peninsula.
  • China, Japan, Russia, and the United States have an outsized impact on South Korea given their proximity, global economic and strategic influence, and integral role in South Korea’s most pressing foreign policy and security challenges, like inter-Korean peace.

Why did South Korea start shifting its focus towards India?

  • Owing to U.S.-China frictions intensifying, South Korea is increasingly concerned about being entangled in great power competition.
  • To lessen these vulnerabilities, Seoul is lookingto diversify its economic and strategic partnerships in the region by strengthening ties with India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under South Korea’s New Southern Policy (NSP).
  • The policy’s goal is to elevate ties with India and Southeast Asia to the same level as South Korea’s relationships with China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

India-Republic of Korea (RoK) bilateral relationship

  • 1962-1973: Bilateral consular relations were established in 1962 which was upgraded to Ambassador-level in 1973.
    • In course of time, RoK's open market policies and the New Southern Policy found resonance with India's economic liberalization, 'Look East Policy' as well as “Act East Policy”.
  • India played an important and positive role in Korean affairs after Korea's independence in 1945.
  • Mr. K P S Menon of India was the Chairman of the 9-member UN Commission set up in 1947 to hold elections in Korea.
  • During the Korean War (1950-53), both the warring sides accepted a resolution sponsored by India, and the ceasefire was declared on 27 July 1953.
  • Lt. General K.S. Thimayya of India, served as the chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission [NNRC], after the armistice and contributed to resolving the humanitarian issues arising out of the War, which won appreciation from all quarters.

Why India is a natural partner for South Korea?

India, along with ASEAN members is a natural partner for South Korea for a few reasons.

  • Trade partners: South Korea already has strong ties to these countries, particularly in the economic realm.
    • ASEAN collectively has been South Korea’s second-largest trading partnersince 2017, and Vietnam alone accounts for nearly 9 percent of South Korea’s exports.
    • Though South Korea’s a trade and investment in India has been relatively stagnantin recent years, India is still South Korea’s seventh-largest export market, and the relationship has huge potential.
  • Destination for South Korea’s companies: As South Korean companies look to move manufacturing outside of China due to the increased risk of doing business there, the low labor costs, proximity, and friendly foreign investment policies of countries like Vietnam and India make them good destinations for South Korean investments in manufacturing.

Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA): 

  • Korea and India signed the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in Seoul on 7 August 2009 and was operationalized with effect from 1 January 2010.
  • CEPA is Korea’s first free trade agreement with a member of the BRICS nations.
  • Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement: 
  • The revised Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement was signed during the State visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Seoul on 18 May 2015
  • Korean Companies in India
  • Among Korean companies that have invested in India, Hyundai Motor Group, Samsung Electronics, and LG Group have been the leaders.
  • Similar concerns about China: These countries also share similar concernsabout Chinese influence in the region and a desire to mitigate the uncertainties and risks posed by great power competition. 

How is the new Southern Policy strengthening these ties?

  • The policy has three pillars:
    • peace (meaning political and strategic cooperation)
    • prosperity (meaning economic cooperation)
    • people (meaning socio-cultural cooperation)

How do people-to-people strengthen the relationship?

  • Better cultural understanding: People-to-people ties help build a cultural understanding.
    • In 2011, the ICC was established in Seoul to “showcase India’s rich cultural heritage and promote cultural exchanges” between India and South Korea. Located just across the Embassy of India, ICC organizes ‘International Day of Yoga’, ‘Tagore Jayanti’, ‘Gandhi Jayanti’, festivals of India, etc., to promote Indian culture in South Korea.
  • Sustaining relationship: People-to-people connections built through cultural understanding help sustain relations between two countries.
  • Better for business flourishing: The increased cultural exchanges between South Korea and India have developed a feasible environment for businesses to flourish.
  • Strong relationship: A cultural affiliation based on a people-to-people connection acts as a glue to bind the relationship and prevents it from cracking.

How leader’s policies are aiding the strong relationship?

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy (AEP) and President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy (NSP) are giving primacy to the acceleration of RoK’s economic and strategic relations with India—both have led to a convergence of interests and energies between the two countries.
  • This has had a visible impact on the widening of bilateral trade and commerce, apart from the alignment of their strategic interests in the Northeast Asian region.

What about ‘QUAD’ and South Korea’s regional diplomacy?

  • South Korea’s approach to the minilateral Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (commonly called the Quad) has been similar to its approach to the free-and-open Indo-Pacific narrative—work with partners practically while avoiding open endorsement of their regional strategies.
  • The Quad members—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—have been careful not to explicitly call out China in Quad summits.
  • As the Quad has continued to develop and define its priorities, South Korea has shown willingness to cooperate through parallel initiatives, or in some cases to do so directly.
  • Though South Korea is not a member of the Quad, it was a part of the Quad Plus meetingsin March 2020, where it participated in talks on the pandemic response.

Which areas require cooperation?

Both nations can think of expanding cooperation in the following areas:

  • Country-to-country engagement (party to party level cooperation/institutionalising democratic assistance)
  • Cooperation with like-minded countries in Asia to build capacities, technical/financial support on promoting and strengthening democratic governance
  • Cooperation on fighting global issues/challenges: climate change, freedom of navigation, internet governance, and outer space
  • Economic order: Sustainable development goals (SDGs), trade agreements, and connectivity norms
  • Creation of a Security Order (i.e., Quad) to secure a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific
  • Aid: line of credit
  • More openness to think tanks/NGOs/networks of scholars/activists to create a critical mass
  • Cooperation at the level of NGOs and think tanks – to build networks of think tanks and research organizations


At present, there is massive scope to expand ties between India and South Korea and make it a special relationship in Asia. However, what is required to do so is political will and new imagination in diverse areas such as cultural relations, building on people-to-people contacts, harnessing democracy and liberal values, and cementing civilizational connections. These, in turn, will depend on the strength of the bilateral economic and political relations.

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