Ulan Bator’s Small Country Diplomacy: The Case of North Korea
Engaging Pyongyang at the bilateral and multilateral levels is difficult work. North Korea’s isolation from the outside world, particularly since the end of the Cold Waris both a reason for North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and an inhibitor to the peaceful resolution of the North Korean security “problem.”
Those that have been most heavily involved–China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US–are all major players in Northeast Asia. Russia’s importance is open to debate, as is its ability to leverage its sparsely populated Far East, but its clout in the region is, at least, on the rise. Despite diplomatic, economic, and military prowess, these states working in concert (and often at cross-purposes), have done little to mitigate Pyongyang’s pursuit of weaponry or to dampen its supposed desire to unify the peninsula under the Kimist banner. Now, an important key to resolving the North Korean crisis, and all that it entails, may rest in an unlikely source: Mongolia. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
Ulan Bator’s Small Country Diplomacy: The Case of North Korea
by Anthony Rinna
Introduction | Since its successful transition from communist rule in 1990, the Republic of Mongolia has pursued a foreign policy based on the concept of a “Third Neighbor.” This has primarily taken the form of increasing ties to other countries otherwise geographically removed–mostly the United States, but also Japan, Turkey and South Korea. It is a policy based on offsetting the possibility of subjugation, either figuratively or literally, by powerful neighbors China and Russia.
This policy has proven to be of benefit to Mongolia, and may now also be beneficial for North Korea, allowing it to mitigate its isolation whilst serving broader regional security imperatives. Indeed, since the fall of communism in Mongolia, Ulan Bator has pursued relations with other countries based on what scholars Rodionov, Badmatsyrenov and Shurkhuu describe as “equidistance” from great regional powers. This so-called “equidistance,” in a strictly political sense, specifically means that China, Russia and other countries, “balance each other in the process of a competitive struggle for influence over Mongolia.”
Equidistance has allowed the Mongolian state to take on a role as a middle ground between countries in Northeast Asia. While Mongolia has consistently sought to distance itself from its more powerful neighbors by developing relations with outside powers, it has nevertheless also become a more active and well-integrated member of the Northeast Asian community of nations. It’s balanced relationship with key regional actors since the end of the Cold War has placed Mongolia in a prime position to serve as an asset in helping to ease regional tensions with North Korea.
Of late, while Mongolia continues to pursue a multilateral foreign policy, it has, according to some analysts, begun to make a definitive shift toward China and Russia. As Mongolia continues to develop healthy ties with other countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States (the latter of which continues to provide military advising to Mongolia), the perspective that Mongolia is “shifting” toward China and Russia at the expense of its Third Neighbor policy does not seem to hold true. Rather, it is possible that this is born of a Mongolian effort to integrate itself more tightly into Northeast Asian affairs, but not necessarily at the expense of strong ties with countries outside of its immediate geographic vicinity. Indeed, according to former Mongolian defense official Mendee Jargalsaikhany, due to Mongolia’s position between its two giant neighbors, Mongolia is a “regionless state.” Because of this, Mongolia sees engagement with Northeast Asian affairs as important for its own integration into the region.
Why Mongolia? | Despite being a capitalist economy and a consolidated democracy, Mongolia shares strong historic ties with North Korea. As the Mongolian People’s Republic, it was the second country to recognize the DPRK after it was established, and even though Mongolia was firmly in the pro-Soviet camp during the Sino-Soviet split, while North Korea kept relatively balanced relations with both China and the USSR, relations between North Korea and communist Mongolia remained steadfast. Mongolia is currently experiencing a nascent and increasingly important partnership with North Korea. A large part of this appeal comes from the former’s independent foreign policy and unintimidating nature.
Part of what helps facilitate the growing relationship between Mongolia and North Korea (and what makes a greater Mongolian role in North Korea a favorable prospect for other concerned powers) is the fact that Mongolia is a non-threatening, non-aligned, and non-nuclear state that has good relations with all the other countries involved in negotiations over the North’s nuclear program. Greater Mongolian involvement in regional issues pertaining to North Korea has also received some limited support from third countries. Mark Minton, the former US Ambassador in Ulan Bator, stated that a Mongolian role in regional cooperation on North Korea “makes sense.”
Dynamics Specific to Mongolia-North Korea Interstate Relations | Two things are key where this particular bilateral relationship is concerned, both of which have important implications for North Korea and the region as a whole. The first crucial point is that Mongolia’s democratic and economic path does not reflect an overt pro-Western orientation. Rather, Mongolia seeks to engage all parties, including North Korea, on an equal footing. The willingness of any country, however small and relatively weak, to engage the North is critical to helping bring Pyongyang into dialogue.
Second, Mongolia’s transition from communist rule offers a potential framework, or at least insights, for such a transition to take place in North Korea. Obviously the realities in North Korea to date are quite different from those of Mongolia, but a shared historical background could nevertheless be of help in transforming North Korea. In particular, some such as Eurasia analyst Mark Goleman, argue that North Korea may be able to take a lesson from Mongolia in terms of how to democratize yet maintain a balanced position in a region with several powers. Mongolia has essentially established a healthy democracy and has not fallen under the influence of China or Russia. Of course, a major problem with this line of thinking is that North Korea, for the past fifty years or so, has managed to balance between (i.e., play off) China and Russia to achieve its strategic goals, while maintaining its totalitarian government.
While North Korea perceives Mongolia as a “harmless” part of its near abroad, Pyongyang will continue to leverage Mongolia to the fullest extent possible for its own national interests, according to Columbia University’s Charles Armstrong. Of course, in turn Mongolia will continue to use its generally cordial relations with Pyongyang to ultimately serve Mongolian interests. Indeed, the links between Pyongyang and Ulan Bator are highly pragmatic in nature
High-level State Visits and Enhanced Cooperation | In recent years there have been a number of high-level state-to-state exchanges between Mongolia and the DPRK. Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj became the first foreign head of state to visit North Korea after Kim Jong-un succeeded his father. During that visit, President Elbegdorj made a speech at Kim Il Sung University, stating that no tyranny can last forever, and, “It is the desire of the people to live free that is the eternal power.” The Mongolian delegation later explained that the topic of the speech was suggested by their North Korean interlocutors, and that DPRK officials at the event only requested that President Elbegdorj not make reference to either “democracy” or “free market.” Elbegdorj, a veteran fighter for freedom and human rights, did not hesitate to highlight Mongolia’s commitment to universal norms, however.
During the recent visit of North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Su-yong, to Ulan Bator in February 2015, the North Korean delegation raised many areas of potential cooperation between the two countries. This included Mongolian support for North Korea at the UN and within the context of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In return, the Mongolians touted Pyongyang’s receptive attitude toward one of President Elbegjdorj’s initiatives, the Ulan Bator Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security. Even before this, Mongolia and North Korea had engaged in other areas of cooperation, including humanitarian assistance. For example, the DPRK asked Mongolia for help with food shortages in April 2013.
Refugees: Underscoring the Depth of Pragmatism in DPRK-Mongolia Ties | While the aforementioned high-level exchanges between two countries have been relatively recent, the cordial yet businesslike relationship between the two countries has deeper roots. One indication of the pragmatic nature of ties between Pyongyang and Ulan Bator, is the past trend of North Korean refugees fleeing to Mongolia. This trend has by and large dissipated, but even during its heyday it did not prove to be an excessive irritant in the relationship between the two countries. While their numbers were always relatively small (because Mongolia and North Korea are two days apart by train) much of the appeal that Mongolia held as a destination for North Korean refugees was the perception that they are better off in Mongolia than they are in China. There had even been an “underground railroad” of sorts run by missionaries (including Americans), but the operation came to a halt after the Chinese police intercepted 29 North Korean refugees, who were subsequently repatriated.
Despite the appeal that Mongolia held as a refuge for those wishing to flee North Korea, neither government allowed the issue to burgeon into a major problem.
Over a decade ago, Mongolia made plans to convert a former Soviet military base at Choybalsan into a transit camp for North Korean refugees. The plan, however, had met with tacit disapproval from not only North Korea, but China and even South Korea. In turn, Mongolia expressed fears of offending any of the other regional powers. The issue of potentially constructing a refugee transit camp, in fact, prompted a high-level visit from North Korean foreign minister Baek Nam-sun in 2002. The visit led to a renewal of the Mongolian-North Korean cooperation treaty, and Mongolian officials implied that they would not go ahead with the construction of the camp.
Mongolia’s Position in the DPRK’s Economic Isolation and Nuclear Crisis | The (for the most part) now-bygone issue of refugees between Mongolia and North Korea is an example of the pragmatic relations between the two countries. It is also, however, an issue mostly pertaining to DPRK-Mongolia bilateral ties. There are other issues which also demonstrate the underlying practicality of their relations. These include Mongolia’s trade ties with North Korea, and, perhaps of greater significance to the region, Mongolia’s potential role in the multilateral handling the North Korea nuclear crisis.
While Mongolia is certainly not an economic powerhouse, its own economy continues to grow off the back of investment in immense natural resource reserves. In the context of rising revenues Ulan Bator is keen to develop new economic partnerships, and this includes with North Korea (although prices have fallen dramatically in the last year or so).
Mongolia-North Korea ties, perhaps more so than any of the DPRK’s existing bilateral commercial relationships, are based on mutual economic benefit. Although Mongolia is rich in mineral resources, it does not have access to global maritime routes. North Korea offers a potential oceanic outlet for its mineral exports. The North Korean port of Rason is an attractive outlet for landlocked Mongolia’s mineral wealth. Comparative advantage opens the door to bilateral economic cooperation.
Mongolia has also been a source for limited foreign direct investment in North Korea. For example, it recently bought a 20 percent stake in a North Korean oil refinery. While this is a very minor step indeed, all foreign direct investment in North Korea takes on outsized importance. Indeed, whilst foreign investment in North Korea remains, difficult, the North is nevertheless not devoid of potential. In fact Changyong Rhee, a Korea expert at the International Monetary Fund, believes that North Korea can experience the same sort of economic transformation that sanctions-wracked Myanmar (Burma) has of late.
A major facet of Mongolia’s post-communist domestic and foreign policy has been opposition to nuclear weapons. Mongolia does not allow nuclear arms on its soil, a not insignificant thing given the fact that it is sandwiched between two nuclear powers (China and Russia) and is only a relatively small distance away from nuclear North Korea. Some have therefore postulated that Mongolia may take a leadership role in helping to create a nuclear-free Northeast Asia. In fact, despite its relatively positive relations between Mongolia and North Korea, Mongolia has not hesitated to speak out against the latter’s nuclear program. The fact that Mongolian outspokenness has not caused a major disruption in Mongolia-North Korean relations underscores a certain level of North Korean pragmatism. While the North Korean government would doubtless prefer that Mongolia not openly criticize its nuclear ambitions, Pyongyang has nevertheless shown a willingness to build a rapport with Mongolia.
According to Georgy Toloraya in The Six Party Talks: A Russian Perspective, mutual Russian and US suspicion of each other’s designs for the Korean peninsula have hampered cooperation on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Writing in a working paper for the US-based Brookings Institution, Toloraya calls for greater US-Russia cooperation on North Korea:
It should be noted that Russia’s goals with respect to North Korea are not incompatible with mainstream US goals. The Korean problem is one of the few international problems where Russia and the United States see things similarly and can fruitfully cooperate.
Toloraya continues by stating that Russia-US cooperation on North Korea has only been sporadic, and that a greater level of cooperation, particularly of the Track 2 type, is necessary. As Mongolia has clear and demonstrable interests on the Korean peninsula, Mongolia may provide an excellent source of confidence building and positive influence, in particular providing a venue for the type of Track 2 discussion and cooperation on DPRK denuclearization Toloraya describes. If the Six-Party Talks should ever be revived again, perhaps Mongolian inclusion would be an agreeable aspect for all of the other countries involved.
Conclusion | Mongolia’s role in East Asian affairs should not be exaggerated. This is especially true with regards to the regional implications posed by North Korea. No single country can help solve all of the threats posed by the DPRK. Nevertheless, Mongolia is well placed to help bring North Korea more tightly into the fold of Northeast Asia. Its independent foreign policy, combined with smooth relations with other regional powers, allows Mongolia a certain amount of diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the DPRK. At the same time Mongolia and North Korea enjoy a relatively healthy bilateral relationship, characterized by historic ties and a great deal of pragmatism. In particular, Mongolia has a small, but not insignificant, potential role in mitigating the North’s commercial isolation and the threat posed by its nuclear weapons’ program. Mongolia’s limited stature may appear to give it an unimportant role to play in ensuring security in Northeast Asia. But it is precisely Mongolia’s unimposing nature that gives it the potential ability to induce North Korea to cooperate more with Mongolia and other countries, and ultimately to persuade North Korea to become a more responsible member of the Notheast Asia region.
Correction: This essay originally misspelled the Mongolian capital. All instances have been corrected to “Ulan Bator.”