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South Korea an able partner in India's quest for nuke energy

Last updated on: March 24, 2012 20:20 IST
Nuclear energy cooperation is just one of the promising features of the relationship between the two nations, says Jinwoog Kim

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reached the Republic of Korea or South Korea on March 24 to attend the Second Nuclear Security Summit which will be held between March 26 and March 27. He will also hold bilateral talks with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, address a joint press conference and hold a meeting with the Korean Federation of Economic Organisations. According to Cheong Wa Dae, from the President's Office, Lee and Dr Singh will discuss nuclear energy, defence cooperation and visa simplification issues. This will be a good opportunity for the two nations to encourage cooperative projects in progress.

The Nuclear Security Summit is the largest summit in the field of security that will discuss international cooperation related to nuclear issues. The Seoul Summit is being held for the second time. As many as 58 representatives from 53 countries and four international organisations including United Nations, Interpol, International Atomic Energy Agency and European Union will participate in the Summit.

Summit members will discuss three topics extensively: cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protection of nuclear material and related facilities and lastly, prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear material. Nuclear safety will also be on the agenda since it has come into focus after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

It has been reported that nuclear-related issues and mechanism to promote current cooperation will be discussed between South Korea and India. The civil nuclear cooperation agreement between two countries was signed when President Pratibha Patil visited South Korea in July last year. Peaceful and safe utilisation of nuclear energy is in the common interest of the international community, South Korea and India.

The safety of nuclear power plants has been repeatedly questioned in India and public protests were held against the construction of the proposed nuclear power plant in Jaitapur. Concurrently, South Korea has developed a safe and efficient civil nuclear power system which contributes up to 40 per cent of the total electricity of the country. An international team of nuclear safety experts from IAEA has concluded that South Korea has strong regulations on operating atomic energy facilities safely and preventing accidents, during their two-week mission of the Integrated Regulatory Review Service in July 2011.

Furthermore, South Korea has considerable experience in the construction of plants, roads and ports. President Lee was himself an engineer and served as the chairman of Hyundai Company, which specialised in construction and ship-building. South Korea can be a suitable partner for India to provide the best earthquake-resistant and safe nuclear plants under the civilian cooperation agreement.

Nuclear energy cooperation is just one of the promising parts of the relationship between the two nations. In the last few years, there has been a drastic change in the cooperation between South Korea and India. In 2010, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement came into effect and the relationship was upgraded from Mutual Cooperative Relationship to Strategic Partnership.

The normalisation of relationship between India and South Korea and India and North Korea occurred simultaneously in 1973 and the bilateral talks became more fruitful after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's visit to South Korea in 1993. It has to be noted that two countries' high-level contact has become frequent; President Lee visited India for bilateral talks in 2010 and President Patil visited Seoul in 2011.

Economically, there has been an increase in trade since CEPA was signed. The two sides agreed to remove the tariff wall mutually and its effects soon became apparent. As per the Diplomatic White Paper, South Korea's exports to India increased by 43 per cent and imports from India registered a 37 per cent rise in the first year of the CEPA taking effect. Total bilateral trade was $17 billion dollars in 2010, which is the highest so far. India became one of the ten important economic partners of South Korea.

More than 300 Korean companies are working in India and South Korea has made significant foreign direct investment in many sectors of the Indian economy. Presently, there is some land acquisition and rehabilitation for the establishment of mega steel power plants in Odisha by POSCO. CEPA promotes more trade investment, human exchanges and other potential areas of cooperation.

South Korea-India cooperation can be found in other areas too. For example, Korean and Indian defence ministers have met in September 2010 and discussed comprehensive military exchange including Research and Development in defence equipment production.

A Memorandum of Understanding on Korea-India Defence Technology Cooperation has been signed and resulted in the Korea-India Defence R&D Committee in February. The Committee comprises Defense Acquisition Programme Administration from South Korea and the Defence Research and Development Organisation from India.

Cultural exchanges are also active between the two countries. At present, academic exchanges between India and South Korea are taking place. The Korean Foundation provides many scholarships to Indian students to complete various educational programmes of science as well as humanities. The Korean language is taught in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University and The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

South Korea is expected to play a leading role in the Summit as the host country in coordinating between participating countries' views on key nuclear security affairs. It is believed that South Korea has been selected as the host with its acknowledged world-class nuclear technology and compliance with Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations as well as its exemplary use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Not only for South Korea's own eligibility, but also for the geopolitical situation of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul as the host is highly meaningful within the context of denuclearisation. Since there will be leadership changes in regional major powers this year, the Summit will help secure the stability of the Korean peninsula by bringing global leaders to discuss cooperative measures for nuclear security.

The Summit is also a significant opportunity for the current leadership, before Lee's tenure ends in February 2013. Lee is supposed to play a leading role in establishing global governance in the security and political fields again, just as he performed successfully in the economic field through the hosting of the G20 Seoul Summit in 2010.

Unlike his reputable international leadership, his domestic reputation has been seriously affected due to economic difficulties and alleged corruption. It is hardly expected that the ruling party will be able to win the general election and the Presidential election respectively in April and December. The by-election held last October has already proven this critical lame-duck phenomenon explicitly. It is thought that those situations would force Lee's government to utilise NSS as the last opportunity for him to show his competence in international communication regarding security and technological affairs.

Manmohan Singh once said, "What happened in East Asia, particularly in a country like the Republic of Korea, did influence me considerably. India and South Korea roughly had the same per capita income in 1960, and in 40 years South Korea has become a member of the OECD and we are where we are. The Indian per capita income would be about $450. The Korean per capita income would be about $11,000 or $12,000 per annum. That's a remarkable achievement."

In that sense, Dr Singh's visit to Korea will be another significant chance for the two nations. The Indian leader is sincere about the development of his country and Indian people are ready to improve their society. South Korea is now going to undertake various diplomatic tasks to initiate possible friendships.

Dr Singh's visit will be a milestone in the development of India as well as relations with South Korea. The Strategic Partnership is expected to improve mutual economic and diplomatic ties including trade, social and cultural exchanges. Hope India can be a strong partner for South Korea and embark on a great, new friendship. Happy journey and good results!

Jinwoog Kim