“In the golden age of Asia, Korea was one of its lamp bearers. And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again. For the illumination of the East.” Rabindranath Tagore wrote this famous poem in 1929, and it was on the minds of many people during Indian President Pratibha Patil’s visit to South Korea on July 25.
Patil had high hopes for her visit to South Korea. Bucking the recent trend of nations turning away from nuclear power due to fears sparked by the recent Fukushima Nuclear Power plant disaster, President Patil is firmly committed to nuclear power for India. In fact, the deal with South Korea was even more important after the Japanese tsunami, since agreements with Japan had hit unexpected snags due to the terrible events. South Korea also had high hopes, because their goal was to export 80 nuclear reactors by 2030. They are courting India as potential customers in addition to Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China. South Korea is getting into the nuclear reactor business in a big way. And India could turn out to be their number one customer.
President Patil was hoping to cement agreements that were originally started by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Korean President Lee Myung-bak last October at the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi. Just like South Korea is looking to spread nuclear reactors throughout the world, India is looking to import them from many places in the world as well, such as Russia, the US, France, Mongolia, Argentina, Kazakhstan, the UK, and Canada. India’s sudden and voracious interest in nuclear technology is due to the lifting of a virtual trade embargo on nuclear technology which had been triggered by the nation testing a nuclear weapon in 1974.
South Korea is rather well-known for nuclear power, and 40 percent of the country’s electricity is generated using it. It is expected to increase 16 percent within the next ten years. The country is not shy about using its nuclear power either, as all of the nuclear plants in the country run at 95 percent or higher capacity. Within South Korea, 12 more nuclear reactors are scheduled to come online from now until 2021, almost doubling the current capacity of nuclear power on the peninsula. South Korea is also known to work with a variety of advanced reactor designs. They use small modular reactors, liquid-metal fast/transmutation reactors. They also utilize a high-temperature hydrogen generation design. With their nuclear reactor business going strong, it is no wonder that South Korea has high hopes for its exports.
President Patil was greeted on her arrival by an honor guard of about 100 young Korean men and women and the beating of drums. The military display also played the Indian national anthem and fired ceremonial cannon fire. During the first part of her visit to Seoul, she was greeted by Korean Second Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Min Dong-seok and other officials. Later that day she was the guest of honor at a lavish banquet held at the Korean presidential Blue House. No honor was spared for her visit.
President Patil gave an address on her first day in Korea, affirming the two countries’ shared values of democracy, the rule of law, and the spirit of human dignity. Patil emphasized the shared religion of Buddhism, and India’s presence when Korea became independent in 1948. She said, “There is a natural empathy between our two countries, as both suffered the pain caused by colonialism.”
President Patil also met with representatives of Korea’s major companies including LG, Samsung, Hyundai, and Daewoo. She noted that names such as those were household words in India today, and that the positive financial outlook of India’s economy – especially its immunity to the global financial crisis – assures Korean companies of an ever-increasing and hungry market for its high-end electronics and automobile goods. Based on the president’s words, the partnership between the two countries seemed like a match made in heaven.
Presidents Patil and Lee signed three inter-governmental agreements while she was visiting South Korea. The first agreement was regarding the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the second was an MoU on media exchanges, and the third was the assurance of social security for people from both countries being employed in each others’ land. India employs many South Korean workers in the construction, steel-making, and automobile industries. South Korea, in turn, employs quite a few Indian engineers in the IT sector. President Patil said, “In Korea, the Agreement on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy signed during my visit will enable our two countries to cooperate with each other in a new sector.” President Lee said that the visit and the agreements were “historic” and that it would act as “a milestone, demonstrating that our two countries have now truly become strategic partners.” Specifically, the deal allows South Korean companies to negotiate with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.
These deals are all patterned after the agreement that India signed with the US, after it received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008. That was an official, international recognition of acceptance of India only wanting to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. The agreement with South Korea show that India is taking seriously its Look East policy, and will open up further trade possibilities with other countries in East Asia. India’s long-term strategic interests lie in North- and Southeast Asia. It must be able to counter China’s influence in the region, and it would be best to become a more influential power compared to the United States as well.
This is part of a larger trend of India playing a much greater role in Asia as a whole. With its historical background of being a major player in Southeast Asian relationships, the country could once again begin to influence the smaller nations around it in ways that it has not done in recent memory. India has spent a long time focusing on itself alone, and internal problems. But now the recent government seems to recognize that the solution to internal problems are external to India, and has begun reaching out to get what it needs to get. This relationship with South Korea is one of those reaches, and promises many more in the future. These moves are even encouraged by the US, who sees India as a potential ally and balancer against the growing influence of China. President Patil took some time out during her visit to Seoul to lay flowers at the new bust of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, which is located in Daehangro in Seoul. Tagore wrote a poem titled The Lamp of the East which referred to Korea as a star among nations, soon to rise again. The words have been inspirational to the Korean people, and the bust was set up after it was crafted by the master sculptor Gautam Pal and gifted to South Korea by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Before she left, President Patil invited President Lee to visit India in the near future.
After President Patil finished her visit to South Korea, she planned to go on to Ulaanbaatar to speak with Ts Elbegdorj about mutual defense and cooperation. However, due to the greatest rainfall that South Korea has received in a century, her plane was delayed for over two hours. A technical problem with the wings of her special Air India jet was caused by excessive rain, and the delay was used to serve lunch.
South Korea and India seem like an excellent match more and more. South Korea needs a market for its exports and India is providing it. South Korea wants to export nuclear reactors and India wants to import them. South Korea has just finished the construction and development to make itself a modern nation, and India is in the middle and could use some expertise. The next thing you know, India might be looking for high-speed trains and South Korea might be giving them a little KTX action. There may not be a better international match other than Canada and the United States. With this visit from India’s president, the major obstacles and kinks seem to be worked out, and what remains is a wide-open plain of possibility. Now is a very good time to be Korean, and a very good time to be Indian.
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