Mongolia takes a resolutely middle road when it comes to North and South Korea. It values its long-standing relations with the North while developing its newly-declared strategic partnership with the South. Due to its geographic location, wedged between Russia and China, Mongolia is often considered a “regionless” state. Therefore, engaging the two Koreas is particularly important for Mongolia as it attempts to integrate itself into Northeast Asia as well as expand its foreign economic and cultural interactions beyond China. Until now, the two Koreas have been hesitant about engaging in trilateral engagements with Mongolia, while the other major powers have, heretofore, paid little attention to Ulaanbaatar’s constructive engagements with Seoul and Pyongyang. However, the series of diplomatic initiatives that transpired over the past year suggest that the members to the Six Party Talks on de-nuclearizing North Korea—the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea—are changing their attitude toward Mongolia’s efforts. Meanwhile, both the Republic of Korea (ROK—South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK—North Korea) are evidently beginning to seek increasing economic opportunities in and with Mongolia.
In 2014, key international players began to publicly commend Mongolia’s sustained diplomacy, which does not isolate North Korea. Notably, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognized Mongolia’s role in facilitating and hosting several meetings between Japan and the DPRK, especially for talks on the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 24, 2014). Mongolia hosted three rounds of meeting between Japan and North Korea in 2007–2012, and a secret meeting between the abductees and their Japanese relatives in March 2014 (Japan Times, March 26, 2014). Even though Mongolia’s diplomatic efforts seemed to attract little to no attention from the United States, they have been well received in the Japanese media.
It should also be noted that last year, Mongolia organized the so-called Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, involving all Northeast Asian states. The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue’s track II format includes a city mayors’ forum, women parliamentarian meetings, and a numerous sporting activities; and North Korea actively participated in all of these programs. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly expressed his support for the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue initiative during his August 2014 visit to the Mongolian capital, as well as during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe, last September (Ikon, 22 August 2014; Dushanbe SCO Summit Press Release, September 12, 2014).
South Korean and Russian attitudes toward Mongolia’s regional role are also changing. In particular, Seoul seems to regard Ulaanbaatar as a valued partner for its Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Engagement Initiative (NAPCI) as well as its Eurasia Initiative (Yonhap News, August 26, 2014). Meanwhile, with the upsurge in political contacts between Russia and the DPRK in 2014, Moscow has supported Mongolia’s engagement with North Korea (38 North, November 6, 2014). Indeed, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ulaanbaatar last September, both sides even agreed to collaborate on using the North Korean Rason port (Ikon, September 3, 2014). Both North Korea and Mongolia, as Russia’s traditional geopolitical pivots to Northeast Asia, welcome Russia’s engagement. Whereas, it is clearly in Russia’s interest to transform North Korea from a roadblock to an entryway for reaching non-Chinese markets across Northeast Asia.
Even Mongolia’s view in Washington has been undergoing a moderate shift. US policymakers are now weighing the options of using Mongolia as: 1) an example for political and economic transitions, 2) a venue for dialogue on economic cooperation, and/or 3) a staging area for humanitarian activities in the wider region (Brookings Op-Ed, No. 84, January 2015; CSIS, December 3, 2014).
With these increasingly positive attitudes among all the major players, Mongolia may be able to capitalize on its secure domestic and political situation, as well as its political neutrality toward both Koreas, in order to strengthen its ties with potential partners across Northeast Asia. At the same time, Ulaanbaatar hopes to be able to provide more opportunities for trilateral collaboration among Mongolia, the ROK and the DPRK, especially in areas of sustainable development.
In mid-January 2015, a North Korean aircraft picked up 104 heads of cattle from Mongolia, the first shipment of 10,000 promised animals to help the DPRK develop its animal husbandry sector as a part of Mongolia’s humanitarian assistance package to this country (News.mn, January 13). Although Mongolia provided livestock (goats) to North Korea in the past, this time both sides aim to implement a much larger project, which will help the DPRK build up its long-term food-production capacity. With its traditional experience in the animal husbandry industry, Mongolia raises 51.9 million grazing animals and is re-building its export capacity to Chinese, Russian and Japanese markets (National Statistics Office of Mongolia, January 2015).
Another area that both Koreas are interested in is the leasing of fertile Mongolian land—especially along the major river basins in the eastern and northern parts the landlocked Asian country. Under a four-year-old agreement between the ROK’s Korea-Mongolia Agricultural Development Initiatives (KMADI) and the local government of Mongolia’s Dornod province, South Korea leased 30,000 hectares of land in eastern Mongolia to develop eco-friendly agriculture and livestock breeding (Korea IT Times, March 11, 2011). In the long run, the project aims to bring South Korean capital and technology into Mongolia with a long-term objective of creating sustainable sources of agricultural and livestock production.
Finally, about 30–40 thousand Mongolians live in South Korea, and 3,000 South Koreans and 2,000 North Koreans reside (or work) in Mongolia. Moreover, South Korea is becoming a major gateway for Mongolians to reach the Asia-Pacific region and North America: 65,000 Mongolians travel to and through Seoul every year. Currently, there are 20 flights in the summer and 12 in the winter between Seoul and Ulaanbaatar. Thus, South Korea has grown into one of Mongolia’s largest trading partners and has increased its investment in the landlocked country’s mining, infrastructure and services sectors. Although on a smaller scale, Mongolian businesses are also eyeing investments in North Korea, if Pyongyang gradually opens up its economy.
If these trends continue, Mongolia may appeal for even more economic and cultural collaboration with the two Koreas. And there appears to be ever greater potential for collaboration on sustainable economic projects such as agriculture, tourism and infrastructure development.