South Korea's First Lady in India to deepen traditional links

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the First Lady of South Korea, Mrs Kim Jung-Sook, in New Delhi on Nov 5, 2018.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the First Lady of South Korea, Mrs Kim Jung-Sook, in New Delhi on Nov 5, 2018.PHOTO: PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU, GOVERNMENT OF INDIA
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's wife Kim Jung-sook with India's Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Nov 5, 2018.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's wife Kim Jung-sook with India's Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Nov 5, 2018.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS, INDIA

NEW DELHI - South Korean President Moon Jae-in's wife Kim Jung-sook is visiting India as both countries look to commemorating an ancient connection.

According to legend, a young Indian princess from the city of Ayodhya was sent to Gimhae to marry King Kim Suro in AD 48. Princess Suriratna, who became known as Queen Heo Hwang-ok, bore him 10 sons.

Many South Koreans visit Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh state, every year. In 2001, Ayodhya and Gimhae, in South Gyeongsang province, became sister cities.

On Tuesday (Nov 6), Mrs Moon will attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a park dedicated to Queen Heo in Ayodhya. She will also take part in celebrations to mark Deepavali.

This is the first time in 16 years that a South Korean first lady has made an overseas visit without the president, according to Yonhap news agency.

Her trip comes after Mr Moon visited India in July, when it was decided that South Korea would send a delegation for the inauguration of the expansion of the memorial, a joint initiative of the two countries. It was conveyed to the Indian side that Mrs Moon would lead the delegation.

A memorandum of understanding for the expansion was signed in 2015 during the visit Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to South Korea.

 

Both countries have developed their ties through regular high-level exchanges, with economic cooperation as the backbone.

During Mr Moon's visit in July, the two countries committed to lift bilateral trade to US$50 billion (S$68.9 billion) a year by 2030, up from US$20 billion.

South Korea has been looking to expand relations with India as part of Mr Moon's New Southern Policy formulated last year following a diplomatic row with China.

India, too, is keen to do likewise as part of an Indo-Pacific policy to counter China's growing influence.

Foreign policy analysts see the South Korean First Lady's visit as an important milestone in bilateral relations.

Said former diplomat Skand Ranjan Tayal: "In Korea, they are proud of this legacy (of the Indian-born princess). In India, it is not well known. Now with the First Lady coming here and the whole ceremony, (it) will raise the profile of South Korea in the Indian people's minds. That is what it would achieve."

Mr Tayal, who authored "India and the Republic of Korea: Engaged Democracies", noted Queen Heo is mentioned in Samguk Yusa, a Korean text, as the wife of King Suro.

"And the First Lady coming here means some kind of importance being given to India," he said.

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh said: "It is of symbolic significance because South Korea is emerging both as an economic power and also as a strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific."

New Delhi has rolled out the red carpet for Mrs Moon.

On Monday (Nov 5), she met Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. She was also scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, also in Uttar Pradesh.

The Ministry of External Affairs said last week that Mrs Moon's visit to Ayodhya "will showcase our close civilisational links as well as the ongoing deepening engagement between our two countries".