COVID-19: India ‘Temporarily Closes’ Embassy in North Korea, Ambassador Leaves Country

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New Delhi: India has shut down its embassy in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, joining other foreign embassies which had to also close their missions in the aftermath of restrictions put in place due to COVID-19.

Sources confirmed to The Wire that the small embassy office that India has in Pyongyang is now “temporarily closed” due to the COVID-19 situation.

India’s ambassador to North Korea, Atul Gotsurve, left the hermit country about two weeks ago through the Russian border via a special train arranged by Russians to evacuate their diplomatic personnel.

The departure of the Indian envoy was first reported by the digital news platform, NK News, which focuses its coverage on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It had also reported that the Indian embassy remained open, but sources here stated that the mission has, in fact, been closed down due to the current circumstances.

This is the first country in which India has had to drastically curtail its diplomatic presence since COVID-19 spread across the world in early 2020.

Gotsurve’s replacement had already been announced by Ministry of External Affairs in December 2020. But, the situation inside North Korea with its complete isolation due to COVID-19 rules meant that no diplomatic mission have been able to rotate their staff in the last one and half years.

Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has officially claimed to have had no coronavirus infections. It had however put in severe restrictions, including banning tourists, all ground and air travel inside the country, at the start of the pandemic in January 2020.

A month later, North Korea put in restrictions which particularly targeted foreign missions, as they were just limited to specific areas in Pyongyang.

The country which already had a relatively small number of resident missions, started to witness an exodus of foreign diplomats from March last year.

From sending home families and non-essential officials, the embassies started to close down one by one and humanitarian agencies pulled out their foreign staff.

The UK embassy website states that the mission is “currently closed due to entry and exit restrictions put in place by the North Korean government in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)”.

In February, Russia said that eight of its personnel returned home after a 36-hour journey by train, bus and finally, on foot, pushing belongings on a rail cart, to the border post.

The Russian embassy in North Korea has been documenting the travails of its diplomatic staff on its Facebook page.

In a Facebook post in April, it said that the bulk of the diplomatic community in North Korea had left. Around 38 foreign nationals left through the Chinese border.

“We wish our colleagues in the Pyongyang diplomatic corps, with whom we have become especially close during the harsh months of coronavirus confinement, a happy return home,” the embassy posted.

It stated that missions of Britain, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and France had also locked up their offices over the last one year.

According to the post, there were only 290 foreign nationals left, including nine ambassadors and four chargé d’affaires.

“Leaving the Korean capital can be understood – not everyone can withstand total restrictions unprecedented in their strictness, the extreme shortage of necessary goods, including drugs, the lack of ability to solve health problems,” wrote the Russian embassy.

In early July, the embassy posted photos of another evacuation of a large group of diplomatic personnel who left by a special train. It is understood that they Indian ambassador left on this train.

In normal circumstances, the Indian embassy has around four or five officials. It is not yet clear if all of them have left North Korea. However, the embassy has certainly been locked up, for now.

According to Stimson’s DPRK focused publication, 38 North, India had been North Korea’s second largest trading partner for several years, until recently. In 2016, India’s trade with North Korea stood at $120 million, which fell to $35 million in 2018.

NK News stated that Pyongyang was unlikely to relax its strict border lockdown until 2022, which would dictate when India will be able to send diplomats to open up the embassy again.

India Needs to Shift its Approach Towards Afghanistan -1

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In 1992, India was confronted with burning insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, a collapsing economy, and a disastrous military campaign in Sri Lanka

Since President Biden declared a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan, regional nations with geostrategic, geo-economic, and security interests have been caught in a bind. Except for India, most regional countries have met the Taliban in secret, and some have utilized them to further their geostrategic and security objectives in the area. For example, since 2015, Iran and Russia have aided the Taliban to halt the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) from extending its authority in the country. Knowing the Afghan security forces’ limits and the Taliban’s operational prowess, they chose to cooperate with the Taliban to control the ISK. The Taliban have paid visits to Tehran and Moscow, met with their respective governments, and even sponsored intra-Afghan discussions in their nations.

Pakistan used a twin policy, supporting US-led military operations while also providing a safe haven for the Taliban. Since 2002, Pakistan’s security apparatus has aided the Taliban by recruiting and funding various religious organizations. Before initiating the intra-Afghan peace process, a Taliban team led by Mullah Baradar and the deputy emir responsible for political matters paid a visit to Pakistan. They met with senior officials in Pakistan, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment was revealed further when a Taliban official in the outfit’s political office in Qatar acknowledged that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was heavily engaged in every decision taken by their office.

On the other hand, China used a “limited strategy” and engaged in “self-driven diplomacy.” Beijing’s relationship with the Taliban goes back to the 1990s when the Chinese region of Xinjiang became unstable. Due to their conflicted history, separatism, violent extremism, and centrifugal tendencies, Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims began anti-China agitations in 1980, 1981, 1985, and 1987, culminating in the 1990 Baren crisis. Lu Shulin, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, visited Taliban commander Mullah Omar in 2000 and courted the Taliban and other terrorist organizations to limit any “spillover” of terrorism into Xinjiang. Mullah Omar has vowed that the Taliban would not let Uyghurs conduct assaults against China in Xinjiang, but they will remain Taliban members. Following President Trump’s cancellation of the Taliban’s negotiations with the United States in 2019, Beijing welcomed a Taliban team headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Numerous regional powers are pouring on the nation in an attempt to establish relations with sympathetic Taliban groups and protect their interests. Nonetheless, one country stands to lose the most. India, the region’s most significant contributor to Afghanistan, is one of those players. India confronts a position in which it may have no role to play in that nation, and in the worst-case scenario, not even a diplomatic presence. India has always been a staunch supporter of Kabul’s civilian administration, having invested significantly in the nation over the last two decades. India contributed more than $3 billion (€2.5 billion) in developmental aid, including constructing dams, roads, schools, clinics, and even the country’s parliament building. All of this was feasible because of the protection provided by US security personnel.

India’s reactions to the fall of Kabul in 1992 and 1996 — to Mujahedeen and Taliban, respectively — were diametrically opposed. In 1992, India chose to remain in Afghanistan, and in 1996, it left with no diplomatic presence in the country. Understanding why India’s reaction during both takeovers was different is critical to understanding India’s next step and strategic convergence on Afghanistan this time around.

India recognized Mujahedeen’s administration two weeks after the Najibullah regime fell (30 April 1992) and began implementing the so-called “Rao ideology.” But first, let’s look at the conditions in which India’s policy choices were taken. In 1992, India’s hands were overflowing. In the previous year, Rajiv Gandhi was murdered, and PM Narasimha Rao assumed power. India had trained and supplied the LTTE in Colombo to attack the Sinhalese and their government and had subsequently deployed its troops to battle them openly. In the early 1990s, India saw the negative consequences of using coercion for political reasons (against Sikhs and Sri Lanka). It, therefore, chose a strategy of engagement, which is implemented in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union, India’s most ardent backer, had also collapsed, wreaking havoc on the Indian economy. In 1992, India could hardly fund three more weeks of imports due to depleted foreign currency reserves (Pakistan’s economy was expanding at 5-6 percent per year at the time, compared to 3 percent for India). So, in 1992, India was confronted with burning insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, a collapsing economy, and a disastrous military campaign in Sri Lanka. As a result, India’s hands were tied in 1992, and all it could do was pursue a policy of conciliation in Afghanistan. That policy is known as the “Rao ideology” in history.

The main goals to achieve under this doctrine were: deal with anybody in power, even if they were Mujahedeen; not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and never support or arm any group in Afghanistan; keep people-to-people contact, and retain India’s diplomatic mission. Another aspect was to consider Afghanistan not just in South Asia but also in the perspective of Central Asia.

India also felt that remaining in Afghanistan would make it easier to reach out to Central Asian states and support Kashmir at the United Nations. Above all, although Pakistan wanted India to leave Afghanistan, India was more concerned with its capacity to remain, stick, and endure. Narasimha Rao was a reformer who is often regarded as India’s “Father of Economic Reforms.” His first budget, delivered in 1991, is widely considered as laying the foundations for contemporary India. As a result, India’s approach in Afghanistan was courteous, peaceful, and non-interfering. (To Be Continued)

Writer is a Research Scholar of Dept of Politics & Governance at CUK


Doing a Sergey! EAM Jaishankar to visit Georgia while coming from Moscow

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India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar will be in Georgia from 9th to 10th July, a significant visit as part of India’s engagement with the Caucasus. This is the first visit by an Indian External Affairs Minister to Georgia since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. During the visit to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, Jaishankar will hold talks with Georgia’s FM David Zalkaliani.

Jaishankar visits the country while coming back from his visit to Moscow. Remember, Georgia and Russia don’t share a positive relation. 2008 saw a brief war between the two countries after which two regions of the country–South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence with Moscow’s blessings. While Russia recognizes both territories as independent states, Georgia has rejected the move. New Delhi does not recognize both regions are separate countries.

This comes even as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had visited Pakistan after his India visit earlier this year. While Russia dismissed any closeness to Islamabad, many in Delhi saw an attempt by Moscow to hyphenate India and Pakistan. Lavrov’s 2021 visit to Pakistan was the first visit by the Russian Foreign minister to Islamabad since 2012.

This is also the first visit by an Indian EAM to Georgia in the last 40 years. The last time Indian EAM visited the country was Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Georgia in June 1978 as External Affairs Minister. After that, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had met in New Delhi on 11 May 2000.

India and Georgia do share a lot of historical connect. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s wife Udaipuri Begum was of Georgian origin. Queen St. Ketevan, who was the queen of Kakheti, a kingdom in eastern Georgia and was canonized as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church is buried in St. Augustine Tower in Goa. St. Ketevan attained martyrdom in 1624 in Shiraz, Iran and her relics were brought to India by the Portuguese. Georgian Embassy is keen that the relics could be transferred to Georgia.

Georgian medieval epic poem, written in the 12th century–The Knight in the Panther’s Skin has references to India. It is written by Shota Rustaveli, who is considered the country’s national poet. It is believed that Panchtantra has influenced Georgian folk legends.

The Indian embassy in Armenia is concurrently accredited to Georgia while Georgia has an embassy in Delhi.