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Surya Gangadharan
Friday , November 16, 2012 at 11 : 46

The 38th parallel at Panmunjom and India's position of reluctance


Remember the tunnel that Pakistan built, running 20 feet deep into India's Samba sector which the Border Security Force detected four months ago? From the few details that have emerged, it seems an amateurish effort compared to what the North Koreans have been up to. The South Koreans say the North has laid as many as 20 odd tunnels (since the late 1970s) running from their end of the demilitarised zone into the South. Some of them would have enabled 30,000 troops to enter the South virtually undetected.

I was given the opportunity to visit the third tunnel discovered more than 30 years ago, during a recent "familiarisation visit" to South Korea. Donning yellow hard hats, it took 10 minutes to walk down the "interception tunnel" dug by the South Koreans before we entered the North Korean tunnel. Bent double as the ceiling and walls narrowed, it was damp with barely enough space for people to walk past each other. Apart from tourists like myself, there were considerable numbers of South Korean military personnel.

A steel door suddenly appears, sealing the way forward into North Korea, illustrating the complete absence of diplomatic relations between the two sides. And even though the people on either side are of the same ethnic group, speaking the same language and eating the same food, South Korean diplomats are hard put to interpret the signals from Pyongyang's new ruler Kim Jong-Un.

"His style is certainly different," said a senior South Korean diplomat, "but there's no sign of any significant change in policy towards the South. There does appear to be a power struggle underway within the ruling elite."

According to the diplomat, it's a power struggle in which the Chinese have no role to play. The Chinese do not have much influence over the North although Beijing remains the single critical supplier of food and energy. If China cuts supplies, the North will be in deep trouble. The diplomat also believes China is not encouraging the North's nuclear weapons programme.

Interesting here is the diplomat's take on India and the role it could play in the region. "It's important for India, Japan and Korea to come together. There is an unofficial dialogue already on. Hope we can further strengthen our relationship to ensure peace."

The diplomat was doing his job, being polite among other things. Kim Young-Hie, editor-at-large of the "Joonang Ilbo" newspaper was blunt. "India is seen as reluctant to get involved in this region, perhaps because of the sensitivities given its relationship with China."

A point confirmed by a senior Indian diplomat who pointed out that India was comfortable dealing bilaterally with Northeast Asia's key players. "Whether Korea is unified or not is none of India's business, there are six countries involved in consultations over how to deal with or contain North Korea. Its nuclear weapons proliferation is a matter of concern not only for India but equally the US."

Nevertheless, India's bilateral emphasis does acquire broader connotations at some point. As the South Korean diplomat delicately put it, "The current (bilateral) consultations between India, US, Japan and Korea are beneficial and also complementary."

Logically, India, Japan and South Korea would seem natural partners given their common commitment to democracy, liberal economic and trade policies and shared concerns about the direction China could take in the years ahead. It's a realisation that has dawned on all, India is only reluctant to admit it publicly.


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More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.