In the old Communist world, friendship associations played an important role. The Korea-India Friendship Association is a relic of those times days. The association still exists and it runs a school, a farm and a Friendship Shoes Factory’ in Pyongyang, the dreary capital of one of the world’s most closed societies. In February 2014, the Indian mission gifted the factory three Acer computers, indicating that the shoe factory remains functional, though ties have withered considerably since the heady days of the Non-Aligned Movement.

While India’s relationship with South Korea is flourishing, the North is vanishing from Delhi’s radar. As a result of India’s Look East policy, which has been in place since the early 1990s, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Australia have become desirable partners. India is going all out to engage with the world’s industrialised nations. At this time, what was least expected was a visitor from the old days.

Significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is out of the country, saving him the embarrassment of refusing to meet with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong. He arrived late on Sunday, held talks with External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and called on Vice President Hamid Ansari on Monday. He left mid-morning on Tuesday.

Security concerns

What was this visit about? It is not often that the young and allegedly ruthless dictator Kim Jong Un, sends out emissaries to foreign lands. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dictators have a tendency to call themselves democracies) has few friends in the world. China is an exception. Pakistan is also a firm friend and has in the past received missile technology from Pyongyang. In exchange, Pakistani scientist AQ Khan passed on the designs of centrifugal rings for nuclear  plants. The issue was brought up again by Swaraj in her talks with the visiting foreign minister, when she spoke of India’s security concerns.

`”Foreign Minister-level talks were held in a frank and friendly atmosphere where issues of mutual interest including India’s security concerns came up for discussion,’’ the MEA said in a statement later.  India’s security concerns was meant to convey New Delhi’s fears of a repeat performance from Pyongyang.

Ri Su Yong thanked India for the humanitarian assistance extended by India in the shape of food supplies in the past. He also asked for more humanitarian aid. But the visit was not certainly about aid.

So why was the foreign minister here?

“Don’t forget us: Include us in your Act East policy,’’ is the message Pyongyang is sending out with this visit, said Vyjayanti Raghavan, of the Centre for Korean Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. “North Korea wants to rebuild relations. We won’t lose either by doing so. North Korea is rich in minerals and has excellent quality coal, which India also needs.’’

Rich natural resources

Former Ambassador to Seoul, Skand Dayal, agrees with Raghavan that North Korea is rich in natural resources, which can be exploited if Pyongyang wishes to open up its economy. But chances of economic reforms are low. Ambassador Dayal recalls that the Chinese envoy in Seoul often said that North Korea’s leadership does not pay heed even to close ally China. Beijing has long advised North Korea to follow China’s footsteps and open up its economy. But Pyongyang believes China had abandoned the path and they are the only true follower of Communism.

India’s trade with North Korea is meagre. In 2013-’14, India’s exports to North Korea were valued at $186.80 million, while imports were $12.48 million. The main items of import are iron and steel. Trade is limited because North Korea, reeling under decades of sanctions, has limited foreign exchange. There is no direct shipping and no guarantee of payments through established banking and insurance systems.

In these circumstances, should India waste time and energy on North Korea? Ambassador Dayal says India should not back off yet. New Delhi has played a major role in the past, such as during the Korean War in the 1950s, when it helped in prisoner exchange and provided ambulance and medical services. “At some point India can play a role as a neutral nation in the reconciliation process,” he said. It is good to maintain old links because change can come when least expected, he said.

New Delhi knows this and is ready to wait, without expending too much time or resources here.