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In this file picture from July 2018, South Korea's Defence Minister Song Young-moo is seen talking to the media during a briefing at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea.

The first steps towards an active defence cooperation mechanism between Korea and India are currently being taken. As part of this effort, Korean defence minister Song Young-moo undertook his first visit to India last week. During the visit he took time out to talk to Indrani Bagchi on the prospects of a defence relationship:

Your first engagement was to visit the Indian soldiers who fought in the Korean War. What was that like?

I went to the 60 Parachute Field Hospital in this blistering heat. I saw a number of photos from the Korean War during which Indian soldiers had suffered in the bitter cold in Korea. They were unprepared but they were able to care for approximately 220,000 people. I am certain it was due to those efforts that Korea was able to emerge from the ashes of the war to become one of the world’s advanced economies today.

How will you harmonise Korea’s New Southern Policy with India’s Indo-Pacific policy?

I listened to Prime Minister Modi speaking on the Indo-Pacific at Shangri La and the role India would play. I couldn’t help but note the similarities with Korea’s New Southern Policy. Under this new policy stance, Korea is establishing a new form of defence industry cooperation with South Asia. We are hoping to closely cooperate with India as a key partner. President Moon Jae-in told the State Council after his visit – “India is an incredibly important country to us. As such, we must find ways to strengthen our cooperative relationship to grow stronger together.”

What steps are you taking on defence cooperation?

We are reviewing a variety of measures to establish a special defence industry cooperation partnership with India. In specific, we are highly interested in the plans to set up defence corridors in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, a part of the ‘Make in India’ policy mentioned by Prime Minister Modi during DefExpo 2018.

Currently, the Korean defence industry is looking to establish a presence in the defence corridors and form a real partnership, once they have established a contract relationship on the weapon systems that India is interested in. These partnerships will deepen defence industry cooperation relationship and become the bedrock for India’s organic defence industry.

Korea recently constructed the Jeju naval base. India is also looking to build a blue ocean navy and naval base. Is there prospect for cooperation?

Jeju naval base was a high priority project during my tenure as a Chief of Naval Operations. It is a stepping stone in preparation for the next 20 years, towards becoming a blue ocean navy that will not only serve as a forward base in the waters surrounding northeast Asia, but also safeguard maritime routes which are critical to Korea’s peace and prosperity. Furthermore, the naval base was constructed as a civilian-military hybrid complex so that it can coexist with local residents and contribute to the local economy.

If India is planning to build a similar base and wishing for cooperation with Korea, we pledge to participate so that we can realise India’s vision.

India is currently looking for trainer aircraft for its Air Force. Is Korea willing to sell KAI’s trainer and fighter aircraft to India?

Korea produces FA-50 light attack aircraft, based on KT-1 Basic Trainer and T-50 Advanced Trainer. These trainer and fighter aircraft have proven their capability, we have already exported these aircraft and further export negotiation is underway with many governments.

Should India wish to cooperate with Korea in acquiring air assets, we pledge our active participation in the process. We would like to further express our intention to pursue multiple avenues of approach such as technology transfer and establishing joint ventures so that both countries can develop a mutually beneficial cooperative relationship.

Korea came a long way from a military aid recipient that could not even make a rifle, to a country that can develop cutting-edge precision systems on its own. Through Korea’s journey we experienced many trials, errors and hardships, but we have overcome those to be where we are today. Korea will continue to support India on its path towards becoming a world leader in defence industry, without the errors Korea made during its rise.

How will the North Korea issue be resolved?

We have to realise North Korea is like an infant taking its first steps in the world. Democracies around the world have an important duty – to assist its growth. For them to realise they need to democratise and achieve economic development and move away from their past, it is important we help them understand and come to that conclusion on their own.