India looks to enhance ties with North Korea with ministerial visit

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India, bolstered by recent peace signals from North Korea, is moving to strengthen ties with the reclusive regime.

Indian Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh arrived in Pyongyang with a delegation of officials on Tuesday for a two-day stay, meeting with a host of senior officials such as Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Culture Minister Pak Chun Nam.

It was the first high-level visit by an Indian minister to the rogue state in nearly two decades.

“Now that the environment around North Korea is changing, India may feel like it’s an opportune moment to reach out, perhaps in potential anticipation of the country opening up,” said Harsh Pant, distinguished fellow and head of strategic studies at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.

Despite some hiccups in international efforts to restrict North Korea’s nuclear weapons — Kim Jong Un’s administration on Wednesday threatened to withdraw from a June 12 meeting with President Donald Trump — tensions on the Korean Peninsula have greatly subsided from last year’s regular missile launches.

And now that the White House is reaching out to Kim — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend mentioned the potential for private investment in the underdeveloped state — New Delhi likely wants to follow suit.

“The visit may have been spurred by the recent developments in U.S.-North Korea relations,” said Amit Cowshish, a former advisor at the Indian Ministry of Defense and current partner with law firm Dua Associates.

But that isn’t to say India is looking to inject itself into nuclear negotiations.

Rather, “the purpose of the visit seems to be to explore the possibility of resetting mutual relations in the context of India’s Act East policy,” Cowshish stated, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy initiative of warming up to Asian neighbors.

New Delhi may see this visit as a means to position itself out front should North Korea stabilize and join the international community, said Pant.

Before Modi suspended the bulk of bilateral trade with North Korea in 2017 amid international sanctions on the isolated nation, the two enjoyed friendly diplomatic, commercial and economic ties for decades.

“There were even reports in late 2016 and early 2017 that India was the third largest trade partner of North Korea, although these figures did not consider the substantial illicit or undeclared commerce involving China and Russia,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, foreign policy fellow at Brookings India.

India also maintains an embassy in Pyongyang, resisting pressure from Washington last year to sever all links with Kim’s government.

For Asia’s third-largest economy, North Korea is inextricably linked to security and terror concerns around rival Pakistan, Pant explained.

Islamabad has long provided Pyongyang with nuclear technology under the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program who has admitted to sharing designs with countries such as Libya, Iran and North Korea.

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