By Juni Kim
Inter-Korean relations have been marked by significant setbacks in recent years. The alarming rate of both nuclear and missile tests by North Korea has strained relations between the two Koreas and previous avenues of cooperation, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, have been discontinued. North Korea’s recent string of provocations have only deepened their isolation in the international community, and although recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stated his willingness to engage North Korea, it is unclear at this point how the new administration will approach both engagement and North Korea’s denuclearization.
Tensions on the peninsula are further complicated by the complex regional dynamics of Northeast Asia. The recent deployment of the U.S. missile defense THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea and the subsequent protests by China and Russia illustrate the significant wedges among the six-party nations. The dormant six-party talks, which disbanded in 2009, are unlikely to resume in the near future, and the effectiveness of engagement with North Korea remains a fiercely debated issue among Korea experts.
Against the backdrop of volatile regional tensions, Mongolia has steadily pursued a regional mediator role in recent years and has repeatedly offered to be involved in the peace process for the Korean peninsula. The landlocked nation maintains relatively friendly ties with both Korean nations and has advocated this advantage as part of a potential solution to reduce tensions between the two Koreas.
As a former soviet satellite, Mongolia was the second country to recognize the then newly established DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) in 1948. Mongolia maintained relations with North Korea even after democratization in 1990. Based on an agreement between the two countries, thousands of North Korean workers currently reside in Mongolia and current Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was the first head of state to visit North Korea after Kim Jong-un assumed power. As a landlocked country, Mongolia has a vested interest in access to North Korean ports, which would help decrease Mongolia’s dependence of ports in China and Russia.
Mongolia also holds warm ties with South Korea and considers the nation to be one of its “third neighbors,” which refers to countries that do not share a border with Mongolia, but maintain close relations. The relationship significantly expanded after Mongolia’s democratization and Mongolians view South Korea’s economic development as a success story worth emulating.
Under President Elbegdorj, Mongolia has actively sought to become a regional mediator state in Northeast Asia, and Mongolian officials have recognized their unique position in relation to the two Koreas. Mongolia’s foreign policy concept states, “Mongolia shall take an active part in the process of initiating dialogues and negotiations on the issues of strengthening regional security and creating a collective security mechanism.” This statement has been earnestly pursued by the Mongolian government. Notable recent examples include the ongoing Ulaanbaatar Dialogues, a regional Track 1.5 forum designed to “foster trust, mutual understanding and cooperation in Northeast Asia by creating a mechanism for dialogue,” and hosting negotiations between Japan and North Korea over the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. One of the eventual outcomes of the Japan-North Korea talks was a 2014 reunion in the Mongolian capital between the daughter of a Japanese abductee residing in North Korea and her Japanese grandparents.
In accordance with their foreign policy, Mongolian officials have sought a greater role in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. In a presentation given at the 2015 Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, O. Mashbat, an adviser at the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia, stated, “Mongolian officials see keeping good relations with both Koreas as essential to contribute to regional peace and security, and they believe that Mongolia could act as a mediator if political or nuclear crises arise.”[TS1] [TS2] Both Korean nations have participated in the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, which provides opportunities for engagement on an unofficial level between delegates from the two countries. Other Track 1.5 talks, like the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, also involve participation from the two Koreas and other six-party nations, but Mongolia’s relations with North Korea could serve as an advantage to help encourage cooperation with the reclusive nation.
Finding a peaceful solution to tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to be a perplexing challenge for policymakers worldwide, but some Mongolian officials hope that an eventual brokered deal would be reached with Mongolia’s assistance. The upcoming Mongolian presidential election on June 26th may signal a shift in Mongolia’s foreign policy direction, but Mongolia will likely continue to actively participate in regional efforts to encourage peace in the region and the Korean peninsula.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Francisco Anzola’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.