Korea has long been known as a "shrimp among the whales", boxed as it is among China, Japan, Russia and the United States in northeast Asia. While the divided Korean Peninsula's geopolitics continues to be shaped by the great powers, South Korea is rapidly emerging as a middle power to reckon with in Asia and beyond. South Korea has long been an economic powerhouse. What we are seeing today is Seoul's conscious search for a political and diplomatic role in Asia and beyond. Sustained high growth rates since the 1960s had transformed South Korea from a backward country at the end of World War II into the world's 12th largest economy (PPP terms) and 15th largest (nominal GDP) by 2012.
As the world's seventh largest exporter and eighth largest importer, South Korea is one of the world's important trading nations. Its companies have steadily moved to the export of sophisticated products, including nuclear reactors. Samsung, for example, is giving Apple a run for its money in the global markets for smartphones and tablets.
South Korea has free trade agreements with many countries, including the US, Europe, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. It actively participates in the building of an Asian economic community within a framework led by the ASEAN.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye is now building on her predecessor Lee Myung-bak's efforts to convert Seoul's growing economic power into political influence. Despite being hobbled by an unending conflict with North Korea, Seoul has begun to look beyond the Peninsula to establish a solid global strategic footprint. While holding on to its longstanding alliance with the US, Seoul has deepened ties with China and Russia, the major benefactors of North Korea. It has strategic partnership agreements with a number of countries, including Australia and Vietnam.
Korea now has active multilateral diplomacy. A Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-moon, is the secretary general of the United Nations. It became the first non-G-8 country to host a meeting of the G-20 and the first Asian power to host the Nuclear Security Summit. Korea has become a major donor of foreign aid and is promoting the "Korean model" of economic growth in Africa and Asia. South Korean troops now participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Meanwhile, Korean culture has begun to make a big impact on the world. Korean pop is here to stay after the huge success of "Gangnam Style". Korean movies have penetrated global entertainment markets, including India's Northeast.
Although South Korea has been a major economic partner of India for nearly two decades, the bilateral political relationship has remained an underdeveloped one. That, however, has begun to change in recent years. The two sides have declared the intent to build a strategic partnership. Korea was quick to negotiate an agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with India after the India-US nuclear deal.
The visit of Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony in 2010 had laid the basis for deeper defence cooperation. The recent visit of Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne to South Korea has opened the door for productive engagement between the armed forces of the two countries. South Korea is also quite close to clinching a deal on the supply of minesweepers for the Indian navy. Beyond the buyer-seller relationship, the two sides are exploring the prospects for defence industrial collaboration. There is growing recognition in both capitals that promoting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and the structuring of a stable Asian balance of power demand stronger security cooperation between India and South Korea.
Menon in Seoul
Earlier this month, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon was in Seoul to tie all these strands together and inject some real content into the proclaimed strategic partnership between the two countries. If Menon was the first Indian NSA to visit Seoul, his grandfather K.P.S. Menon, independent India's first foreign secretary, was the chairman of the nine-member UN Commission set up in 1947 to conduct elections in the Korean Peninsula.
As New Delhi and Seoul reconnect politically, the planned visit of President Park to India in the next few months provides an occasion to think boldly about the future of the bilateral partnership. If Delhi can look beyond China in its policies towards northeast Asia, it will find that South Korea can help develop very interesting strategic options for India.