Yongusil 100: Mongolia and the Korean Security Crisis

By | June 29, 2020 | No Comments

 

Once a favored destination for North Korean defectors, the messy realities of diplomacy have made an already long and perilous journey to freedom on the steppes even more remote for North Koreans who escape their country. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

For Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula – lying at a distance of one thousand miles – has implications that resonate with Mongolian foreign policy across Eurasia.1)Anthony V. Rinna, “Economics, Security and Mongolia’s Interests Toward the Korean Peninsula,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies vol. 21, no. 2 (December 2019). The December 2019 issue was published in June 2020. Specifically, Mongolia’s balanced ties between the two Koreas has prompted Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to support Mongolia’s so-called third neighbor policy, which is designed to mitigate Ulaanbaatar’s vulnerabilities toward China and Russia.

A degree of diplomatic balance between Pyongyang and Seoul has even allowed Mongolia to execute a constructive role in Korean security during the 21st century. It was around the time of the second North Korean nuclear crisis (circa 2003) that Ulaanbaatar first began to see itself as a potential mediator between the two Koreas. Mongolia’s deliberate neutrality makes it stand out in an otherwise tensions-ridden Northeast Asia, and this has helped build trust with Pyongyang. The US has encouraged Mongolia to keep its working ties with Pyongyang intact so as to utilize Ulaanbaatar as both a channel of communication and a source of information regarding North Korea — albeit that, contrary to Mongolian wishes, Washington and its partners have generally been unwilling to extend a mediator role to Mongolia.

To be sure, the simple fact of distance from the Korean Peninsula does not mean that Mongolia would be immune from the effects of a hot conflict on and around the Korean Peninsula, were one to erupt. At the heart of Ulaanbaatar’s position on Korean security, in addition to the inter-related concepts of diplomatic equilibrium and the “third neighbor policy”, is the employment of a preventive diplomacy strategy. Mongolia’s “preventive diplomacy” entails creating a situation in which disputes between its neighbors do not have time to arise. This is not altruism. Mongolia rightly sees relative stability as crucial for the preservation of its own sovereignty.

Therefore, the Korean Peninsula is a critical piece of geography for Mongolia, distant as it is from the Mongolian periphery. Ulaanbaatar’s interests vis-à-vis the Peninsula depend in large part on Mongolia’s ability to remain absolutely neutral between the Koreas themselves, as well as the central actors in the saga of Korean security: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The successful execution of this multifaceted balancing act in turn helps Ulaanbaatar preserve itself.

The deciding factor in the success or failure of Mongolia’s delicate Korea strategy is the extent to which the other players involved value Mongolia’s neutrality. Geographic distance and a relative lack of influence in Northeast Asia as a whole need not result in Mongolian insignificance. But the task for Ulaanbaatar is to maintain its relevance.

1 Anthony V. Rinna, “Economics, Security and Mongolia’s Interests Toward the Korean Peninsula,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies vol. 21, no. 2 (December 2019). The December 2019 issue was published in June 2020.

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