I once had the opportunity to speak to Indian engineers who work in Korea. They told me that while they enjoyed working for Korean companies such as Samsung or SK, prejudice among Koreans toward India often made life difficult. Building closer ties with India is a foreign policy imperative under the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but high-level policies alone will not be enough. It is vital for civil society to enhance mutual understanding between Korea and India by expanding cultural exchanges and strengthening people-to-people ties. The private sector also has an important role to play, as they can augment efforts by government-run Korean cultural centers and public entities such as the Korea Foundation.
Indian talent could play an important role in Korea’s economic future. Korea will soon face significant labor shortages due to “a crisis on three fronts: a plummeting birth rate, an aging population, and a serious brain drain.”On the other hand, India has a relatively young population and a large, highly skilled workforce. According to one estimate, “India is projected to have a skilled-labour surplus of around 245.3 million workers by 2030.” There is also a natural synergy between the two economies. India excels in software, whereas Korea’s strength lies in hardware. If China provided opportunities for Korean manufacturers to export intermediate goods, India could provide the talent that Korea’s economy will increasingly rely on in the coming years.
Cowen argues that “India is by far the world’s most significant source of undiscovered and undervalued talent.” Anyone who is concerned about “the future of their own nation” in today’s world, he adds, “really should be focusing on India.” Korea would do well to heed his advice.
While seeking ways to strengthen cooperation with India, Korea should also strive to build closer ties with the Indian diaspora and its networks. East Asian countries, including Korea, adopted a state-centered model of economic development. India took a different path, and its overseas diaspora has played a unique role in driving India’s economic growth. The ever-increasing influence of India’s new argonauts extends beyond Silicon Valley. Australia and Germany have sought to attract Indian talents and draw on their professional networks. The same goes for countries in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates. Korea could form closer partnerships with the extensive global networks of India’s diaspora community as it seeks to attract Indian talent and pursue new economic opportunities.
During the Cold War, Korea looked east toward the United States and Japan. As the Iron Curtain fell in the 1980s, Korea pursued Nordpolitik by normalizing ties with Moscow and Beijing. It is now time for Korea to look south. Even as Southeast Asia grows in importance, Korea must keep its eyes fixed on India. If Korea aims to become Asia’s small giant in this turbulent era, it would be wise for Seoul to use prevailing geopolitical currents to its favor.
This essay draws on ongoing research by the author, which will be published in an upcoming book tentatively titled Talent Giants in the Asia-Pacific Century: A Comparative Analysis of Japan, Australia, China, and India.
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