Why you should care

Because Pyongyang could use a friend, but is this the best way forward for the world?

It’s early morning in Nampo, North Korea’s largest port, and a World Food Program ship slowly unloads huge white construction sacks containing tons of rice for famished citizens who are still recovering from last year’s devastating earthquake. The generous benefactor? The world’s largest democracy: India.

It may be news to most of us, but India and North Korea have been friendly for years — and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears ready to move the secret-ish relationship to the next level. The aggressive leader has already promised to cozy up to his neighbors, including the ultimate international pariah. Earlier this year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited New Delhi, a first for Pyongyang’s top diplomat in a quarter of a century. And India agreed to furnish North Korea’s capital with further humanitarian aid and continue its profitable trade relations. All of which adds momentum to a notable shift, with exports from North Korea to India ballooning from $100,000-plus to a remarkable $110 million in two years.

Buddying up to the West’s Public Enemy No. 1 may seem like a bold move, but there are geopolitical reasons for the transition that are playing out behind the scenes. North Korea and its closest ally, China, are going through a rough patch, with Beijing increasingly frustrated with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. This gives the 32-year-old a good reason to look for another powerful ally. For Modi, the relationship provides a chance to show that India can be a regional power player, and a rival to China too. “India can provide a new diplomatic approach to North Korea, and it is a good strategic counterweight for Pyongyang,” says Chris Ogden, a lecturer in Asian security at the University of St. Andrews and a specialist in Indian foreign policy.

North Korea is now looking to diversify its commercial ties in case its relationship with big brother China goes further south.

Seeing one of America’s strongest allies get up close and personal with a draconian regime best known for its repression and human rights abuses is, well, odd. But it could also get India into diplomatic trouble. While the nation has sent tons of soybeans and wheat to North Korea’s poorest through the World Food Program, according to the country’s Ministry of External Affairs, it also exports tens of thousands of dollars in diamonds, rubies and emeralds. The latter could be a breach of a U.N. resolution that forbids the trade of luxury items, warns Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit. (India’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Shri Ajay Kumar Sharma, declined OZY’s many requests for comment, but did say, “I trust you understand why I can’t discuss these matters.”)

For North Korea, there are plenty of benefits in strengthening the link. Already officials there have received information technology training from India, according to figures by India’s Ministry of Defense, and it’s no secret that North Korea is in dire need of humanitarian aid. (Several countries in the region have their hands tied because of international agreements, so New Delhi’s help is very much welcome.) Plus, after becoming almost completely dependent on China over the years, North Korea is now looking to diversify its commercial ties in case its relationship with its big brother goes further south.

Of course this doesn’t mean the two countries are BFFs. India still needs regional stability to boost its exports overall, and is vocally opposed to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Their commercial relations are still small as well, which has helped prevent India’s other allies, like South Korea or Japan, from raising an eyebrow. Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum, thinks India won’t risk getting close enough to antagonize other regional powers, adding that if Modi wants to balance out Beijing’s influence, he faces “a steep climb.”

Even so, this could be a game changer for the hopes of denuclearization. Ogden says India isn’t going to sweet-talk Kim into giving up the nation’s nuclear dream (after all, India has nuclear arsenals). But the relationship may allow New Delhi to gain some insight into the current state of the nuclear program, which could then be passed onto its friends in Seoul and Tokyo. It may even be able to soften North Korea’s stance by threatening to withdraw aid. So while Modi’s dream of becoming a global power is one thing, his approach is likely to breathe new air into an otherwise stale regional scene. As Ogden says, “the region can certainly use a more pragmatic political player.”

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