During the 20th century, Mongolia’s fate was inextricably bound to that of its giant neighbors Russia and China, but since the collapse of Communism there in 1990, Ulaan Baatar has been cautiously reaching out to the outside world for new security arrangements with nations as diverse as the United States and its Asian neighbors. While Mongolia retains close relations with Russia, the last two decades have seen it adopt a more Asian slant, particularly in its economic relations, as its largest investor is now China, while the largest donors of aid are Japan and South Korea (www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2779.htm).
On August 4 the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that South Korea and Mongolia would hold a round of security talks on August 5, their first since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1991 (Yonhap News Agency, August 4). South Korean and Mongolian defense officials meeting in Ulaan Baatar created a bilateral working group to discuss mutual defense cooperation, ways to regularize working-level defense talks, and how to increase military cooperation between the two countries. South Korean Defense Ministry Northeast Asia bureau official Kwon Young-cheol said, “There have been high-level defense dialogues, such as ministerial talks, between the two countries; but this is the first time they will hold a working-level dialogue, at which the two sides will discuss ways to implement agreements reached at previous talks.”
The discussions were the culmination of nearly a decade of lower-level interaction between the two countries’ militaries. In May 1999 South Korean President Kim Dae Jung went to Mongolia, becoming the first South Korean head of state to visit. Six months later Mongolian Prime Minister Rinchinnyamyn Amarjargal made a reciprocal trip to Seoul for discussions with the South Korean government on improving bilateral relations. Following up on Amarjargal’s visit, South Korean Defense Minister Cho Sung Tae subsequently visited Ulaan Baatar in early December and met with Mongolian Defense Minister Sharavdorj Tuvdendorj. During the course of a four-day visit, the pair initialed an agreement on bilateral military exchanges (Kyodo News, December 8, 1999).
Kim visited Mongolia seeking support for South Korea’s “sunshine policy” diplomatic initiative of increasing engagement with North Korea. Pyongyang was greatly annoyed when Mongolia and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1991, as Mongolia had established diplomatic relations with North Korea while a Soviet protégé in 1948. Kim sought Mongolia’s diplomatic assistance as a useful “back door” for his diplomatic policy. Kim was successful, as Tuvdendorj expressed full support for the South Korean strategy.
Kim’s government quickly followed up with commercial initiatives. A month after his visit, the first meeting of the Mongolian-South Korean Business Council was held in Ulaan Baatar. The council quickly grew to over forty members, including Bodi International, Golomt Bank, Zag, Skytel, Samsung, MSC Holding, Hyundai, Kia Motors, and Korea Telecom (Montsame, January 9, 2000).
Mongolia also participated in a military peacekeeping initiative with South Korea and a number of other nations, sending troops to Iraq in 2003 as part of the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing.” Ulaan Baatar recently rotated its ninth contingent through Iraq and, in support of another United Nations initiative, has military personnel helping train the Afghan National Army. During his 2005 visit to Mongolia, President George W. Bush, the first U.S. President to visit the country, paid tribute to Mongolia’s international contributions, saluting Mongolia’s “fearless warriors” in Iraq, telling his audience, “Mongolia and the United States are standing together as brothers in the cause of freedom. You are an example of success for the region and for the world” (Montsame, November 21, 2005).
Further evidence of Mongolia’s broadening international military approach has been the bilateral joint Mongolian-U. S. “Khan Quest” military training exercise, first held in 2004 (EDM, July 11). Two years after they began, South Korea sent five military officers as observers (Yonhap News Agency, August 8, 2006). South Korean troops subsequently trained alongside their Mongolian colleagues in “Khan Quest 2007” and in this year’s operation as well.
While deepening its international relations with such Western allies as South Korea, Mongolia is mindful of keeping its military relations with its giant neighbors in good stead, as evidenced by its observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Today, Mongolia’s Korean policies extend beyond being a bridge for North-South relations, as last summer Ulaan Baatar hosted Japanese-North Korean negotiations on the normalization of diplomatic relations (Moskovsky Novosti, August 8).
At the heart of the deepening Seoul-Ulaan Baatar relationship, however, is increasing commerce. South Korea is a natural partner for Mongolia, as it is flush with both cash and technology and carries none of the ideological baggage of Mongolia’s massive neighbors, while Mongolia is a potential treasure trove of raw materials for South Korea. The reality is that Mongolia’s armed forces, numbering little more than a U.S. division, are inadequate to defend the country, forcing Ulaan Baatar to substitute diplomacy for military might. Both countries accordingly have shifted their struggle for international influence from the battlefield to the boardroom, and in this conflict, the South Koreans have much to teach their Mongolian counterparts.
The final word on the South Korean-Mongolian nexus between commerce and conflict belongs to Park Hyeon Joo, who founded and manages the biggest mutual fund company in South Korea, the Mirae Asset Financial Group. Park, who in a decade has risen from obscurity to become one of the most successful financial managers in Asia, says that his model for international expansion is Genghis Khan, explaining that Mirae and the Great Khan both believe in promoting talented individuals, regardless of their ethnic background, and in decentralizing authority (Bloomberg, July 31). In the fiscal year that ended on March 31, Mirae Asset Financial Group’s net income before taxes almost tripled. It is a fiscal model that the descendents of the Great Khan, who conquered Korea in the 13th century, will no doubt study closely.