The food bridge India built with Kim's Korea

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By K.P. NAYAR
  • Published 20.12.11
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Washington, Dec. 19: India did not abandon North Korea, the death of whose leader Kim Jong-il was announced today, at a time when almost the entire world had ostracised Pyongyang and pushed it into isolation.

In a little-known initiative by the Manmohan Singh government that reflects India’s quiet march to global power status, New Delhi revived contacts with the reclusive regime last year which led to a gift five months ago of 900 tonnes of soya beans and 373 tonnes of wheat for impoverished North Koreans reeling from hunger and famine produced by an exceptionally bad harvest earlier this year.

The bridge was being rebuilt after a long time. India was one of the nine states which supervised elections in undivided Korea under UN auspices in 1947 and it had chaired the “Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission” after the Korean war of 1950-53.

India’s renewal of contacts with North Korea after several years of intense wooing of rival South Korea for foreign direct investments and trade came with its participation in the sixth Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair in October 2010 for the very first time, although New Delhi established consular relations with the fiercely independent communist state in 1962 and full diplomatic relations 11 years later.

So grateful were the North Koreans for India’s participation in the fair with the theme “India: Dynamic Business Partner for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” that their de facto foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan turned up at the Indian embassy in Pyongyang at a reception the mission was hosting for Republic Day on January 26 this year.

For at least 10 years, the North Koreans, miffed by New Delhi’s assiduous courtship of Seoul, had given such receptions the cold shoulder with low-level participation from their side, if at all.

Following Kim Kye Gwan’s gesture, North Korea’s ambassador in New Delhi approached the external affairs ministry in mid-April with tales of woe about his country’s dire shortage of food following another severely bad crop.

North Koreans under Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung, the father of the nation, have been a fiercely proud people and have rejected foreign aid in times of calamities, so the permission given to the ambassador to ask India for food was taken in South Block as a sign of trust in Pyongyang that New Delhi could be counted on as a friend.

Subsequently, Pyongyang’s de facto foreign minister wrote a formal letter seeking 30,000 tonnes of food aid from India. The request led to an intense debate within South Block, taking into account North Korea’s past assistance to Pakistan’s missile programme aimed against India and its pariah status in the international community on account of Kim Jong-il’s ambitious nuclear programme.

Eventually, India decided that it would give food aid but chose to drive a hard bargain in exchange.

South Block’s officials told the ambassador that it was all right on his part to ask for food aid but India would have to assess for itself the needs of the North Korean people.

To New Delhi’s infinite surprise, the normally secretive regime immediately gave India’s ambassador in Pyongyang, Pratap Singh, a briefing that was so comprehensive that it rivalled those normally afforded in the chancelleries of free societies.

But that was not the end of the story. Movements of foreign diplomats outside Pyongyang are severely restricted as a norm but the North Koreans allowed the Indian ambassador to travel outside their capital for a first-hand understanding of the deprivation of the Korean people.

Encouraged, Pratap Singh decided to push the envelope. On his way to the port of Nampo to take delivery of the Indian aid material and hand them over to the North Koreans through the UN, he sprung a surprise and asked his hosts to show him the countryside.

The idea was that unlike his previous structured travel outside the capital, the detour would be a surprise and the ambassador could glimpse an unvarnished portrait of life in his host country. The North Koreans had no hesitation in letting him stop at places en route to Nampo where no foreigner had set foot. Overnight, Pratap Singh was the toast of the diplomatic community in Pyongyang because he had seen slices of North Korean life that most ambassadors accredited to the communist regime had not been allowed a peek into.

His telegrams to South Block resulted in a queue of ambassadors and high commissioners from Chanakyapuri lining up at the external affairs ministry for briefings on North Korea’s famine conditions and the state of the nation.

During discussions on North Korea’s request for food, India harboured worries about Seoul’s reaction to any decision to step up contacts with Pyongyang. But in another surprise, the South Korean government showed great understanding of the Indian decision. It was Seoul’s action in cutting down food assistance to Pyongyang that had aggravated the famine in the North. Besides, China, the traditional source of support for Kim Jong-il, had a severe drought last year, which affected Beijing’s ability to send the usual amount of food aid for North Korea in 2011.

The US, too, cottoned on quickly to the UPA government’s breakthrough in Pyongyang. It opted for a pragmatic approach unlike in the case of Iran, where South Block is constantly under pressure to downgrade New Delhi’s engagement of Tehran. As a result, North Korea, like Myanmar, has become an integral part of India’s regional engagement of the US. Kurt Campbell, the state department’s assistant secretary dealing with East Asia, has told the Obama administration that India has a role in Washington’s rapprochement with Myanmar and in sorting out problems with North Korea.

India is not, however, about to jump into the regular international diplomatic activity on the Korean peninsula.

Signalling that aloofness, India insisted that the food aid which arrived in Nampo must be distributed through the UN’s World Food Programme.

That condition ensured that the regime would not divert the wheat and soya to the elite in North Korea instead of giving it to those in greater need.

A low-key media release issued by South Block when Pratap Singh took delivery of the Indian consignment underlined that it was “humanitarian food assistance… especially for women and children in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, through the World Food Programme”.

Following South Block’s lead, the ministry of culture has decided to give 2,000 euros as “grant-in-aid” to a school in Pyongyang run by the Korea-India Friendship Association, in addition to stationery items and coupons for the school to buy diesel.