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North Korea Looks for a New Friend, India

On April 13th, Ri Su Yong met his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in New Delhi. The trip is thought to be the first time a North Korean foreign minister has visited India.

Ri’s mission highlights North Korea’s attempt to isolate China, its only formal military ally, and establish new relationships in Asia and elsewhere.

Ri last week discussed his country’s nuclear weapon program and asked for additional humanitarian aid. Yet the topics of conversation were not nearly as important as the fact that the meeting took place at all, not to mention in the Indian capital.

Especially since the December 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle by marriage of leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has continually snubbed Beijing. Jang handled most of North Korea’s diplomatic ties with China, so his removal and the subsequent destruction of his nationwide patronage network caused a rupture that has not yet healed.

Since the near breakdown in diplomatic ties with China, Kim has attempted to build relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, for the most part, has reciprocated the effort, especially with last year’s cancellation of most of the North’s Soviet-era debt. Many expect that Kim’s first foreign trip as leader will occur next month, and that he will go to Moscow

Yet a Russia in recession—and preoccupied by crises it is causing on its western and southern boundaries—will not be able to provide the support Pyongyang needs in the immediate future. India, on the other hand, now has the world’s fastest-growing major economy and could, if it so chose, keep the North Korean regime afloat.

And New Delhi has a motive to lend a hand. China, which has tried to use Pakistan to destabilize India for decades, is stepping up its support to Islamabad. Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in the Pakistani capital on Monday for a two-day visit, cash in hand. 

Last year, both countries unveiled the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a 2,700-kilometer, $45.6 billion network of transport and communication links bisecting Pakistan. The ambitious projects comprising the corridor look overly ambitious—among other reasons, both ends are troubled by ethnic violence—but Xi’s high-profile visit highlights Beijing’s commitment, financial and otherwise, to the unstable state.  

New Delhi policymakers are especially concerned that China will use the corridor’s southern terminus, the port of Gwadar, as a base for its planes and warships, so they are keenly watching Xi’s tour of Pakistan. During his trip, the Chinese leader signed commitments for $28 billion of projects.

Pyongyang may be figuring that India’s assertive prime minister may want a chess piece of his own. Narendra Modi is obviously willing to confront Beijing, even in areas the Chinese consider their own, such as the South China Sea, but it’s unlikely he wants to assume responsibility for a destitute client state that is an international pariah.

India has historically remained non-aligned. That attitude has changed in recent years, especially with its moves to create linkages in the Indian Ocean, exhibited by the formation of the “IO-5” with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. But establishing a grouping of neighbors is a far cry from ganging up on China with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Nonetheless, Ri’s trip to India comes at a crucial time, a month before Modi’s visits to China and South Korea. Every capital, it seems, is trying to make new friends in Asia these days. 

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