Two high-level visits of Mongolian officials to Seoul in the past six weeks indicate that Mongolian–South Korean relations are rapidly intensifying. This trend and Mongolia’s mid-March facilitation of the reunion of Japanese relatives with the daughter of a North Korean abductee illustrate the desire of Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj to be more active in Northeast Asian (NEA) regional politics—including the Six-Party Talks over the Democratic Republic of Korea’s (DPRK—North Korea) nuclear program. Meanwhile, Seoul, motivated by its desire to participate in the exploitation of Mongolia’s Tavan Tolgoi (TT) coal/uranium mine project, has found new ways to broaden cooperation and investment with Ulaanbaatar. Its prominent courting of the Mongolian leadership strongly indicates that the Republic of Korea (ROK—South Korea) agrees Mongolia can play a more significant regional role.
Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luvsanvandan Bold visited Seoul on February 12–14. This was the first official visit of a Mongolian foreign minister to South Korea in ten years, and the ROK’s first foreign ministerial–level visitor since forming its cabinet under President Park Geun-hye a year ago (The Mongol Messenger, February 14). Bold’s meeting with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se focused on concrete measures to develop the bilateral comprehensive partnership. This included the creation of an intergovernmental mechanism for economic cooperation to stimulate Korean investment in Mongolia’s largest mining and infrastructure construction projects and to intensify bilateral collaboration in technology, human resources and management. Both sides agreed to cooperate in inducing change in North Korea, and Bold also expressed support for Seoul’s push to unify the two Koreas (Yonhap News Agency, February 12).
Foreign Minister Bold met with Minister of Reunification Ryoo Kihl-jae on Six-Party issues and explained the Mongolian desire to use President Elbegdorj’s new Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security mechanism to encourage peace on the peninsula. Bold, who formerly headed the Ministry of Defense, and Kim Kwan-jin, Korea’s Minister of National Defense, agreed to allow more Mongolian soldiers to study in the ROK and to initiate new cooperation in military techniques and peacekeeping operations. Subsequently, on March 5, ROK Deputy Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo and Mongolian Deputy Defense Minister Battus Avirmid signed an agreement in Seoul to ship 15 used military vehicles, including construction equipment, to Mongolia to expand defense cooperation, support Mongolia’s United Nations peacekeeping operations, and build infrastructure for economic development (ROK Ministry of Defense release, Yonhap News Agency, Montsame, March 5). Bold’s visit to the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA) resulted in an agreement for the KNDA to assist in founding a Diplomatic Academy for Mongolia’s foreign ministry.
A key concern for the Mongolians was for completely visa-free travel for its 120,000 Korea-bound citizens annually. At the ROK National Assembly, the two sides discussed inter-parliamentary cooperation and various visa and health insurance issues (The Mongol Messenger, February 21). The Immigration Agency of Mongolia along with the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) subsequently launched on March 12 a project on immigration management of a cyber system to accurately monitor the migration of Mongolians residing abroad and create a new united border checkpoints database of foreign nationals, organizations and foreign-invested entities operating in Mongolia (The Mongol Messenger, March 21).
During the visit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Mongolia-Korea Business Forum partnership was signed by Yachil Batsuuri, CEO of state-owned Erdenes Tavantolgoi LLC (ETT) (Montsame, english.news.mn, February 18). Batsuuri’s presence signaled that, going forward, South Koreans will play a more meaningful part in the exploitation of the 6.8 billion ton TT coal deposit. Three weeks later it was announced that Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) signed an MOU with ETT and Mongolia’s largest drilling company, Elgen, to strengthen development of a Korean-Mongolian research cooperation network and forge a partnership to upgrade TT’s resource-making technologies using non-traditional energy sources. The three companies will analyze coal-bed methane (CBM) as well as share production technologies and technologies for enhanced CBM recovery (BusinessKorea reported in Montsame, english.news.mn, March 5).
Additionally, on March 12–15 Mongolian Parliamentary Speaker Zandaakhuu Enkhbold journeyed to Seoul, and during his courtesy call on President Park, the Korean head of state emphasized that his visit was important for Mongolian-South Korea relations. Park also thanked her Mongolian counterpart for appealing to North Korea to cooperate with the UN during his visit to Pyongyang in November 2013: “This appeal was very important and […] the unification process will have an important role to the development of coexisting countries” (The Mongol Messenger, March 21). Park and Enkhbold discussed the ROK’s “Eurasian Initiative” to promote regional development and the complementary Mongolian plan to construct a railway network that will connect Eurasian and NEA countries. Enkhbold also toured the South Korea Industrial Complex Corporation (SKICC), in which some 800 industrial plants produce 66 percent of Korea’s GDP, and visited the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) to explore establishing a joint Science Education Center of Mongolia and South Korea. The speaker attended a Mongolian–South Korea Business Forum meeting where a cooperation memorandum was signed between ETT and Daelim Petrochemical Corporation. He also visited the Pusan-Jinhae Free Economic Zone and held a meeting with 6,000 Mongolians working there (Montsame, March 17).
During Enkhbold’s visit, the Mongolians hosted a reunion between the Japanese parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea 40 years ago, with their granddaughter (Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16). It is widely speculated that this reunion resulted from Mongolian President Elbegdorj’s 2013 trip to North Korea, and a positive sign to resolve the logjam between Japan and the DPRK, which is preventing closer economic ties. Japanese commentators believe that Tokyo will use the Ulaanbaatar meeting as a step toward setting up an official government meeting on the abduction issue (Montsame, March 17). It was no coincidence that Mongolian Finance Minister Chultem Ulaan led a delegation to South Korea’s Strategy and Finance Ministry and National Tax Service on March 17–19. When Ulaan met with Hyun Oh-seok, the ROK’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategy and finance, it is likely that he reported on the reunion as well as exchanged opinions on taxation cooperation (Montsame, english.news.mn, March 17).
The number of high-level bilateral exchanges between Mongolia and South Korea should significantly increase this year, as the two countries prepare for a state visit to South Korea by President Elbegdorj in 2015, which will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states.