By Juni Kim
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump publicly acknowledged that five locations were being considered for the proposed U.S.-North Korea summit. Although Trump stayed mum on which sites are included, media reports have speculated that the short list may include Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm, Geneva, Warsaw, Bangkok, Singapore, and Ulaanbaatar among others.
Although not without risks, the chance to host the historic meeting represents an exceptional opportunity for a country to raise its global profile. In particular, Mongolia has long sought to become a mediating presence in Northeast Asia, and hosting the Trump-Kim summit in the capital Ulaanbaatar would be a huge win for Mongolia’s foreign policy aims.
In accordance with their Foreign Policy concept, Mongolia maintains friendly ties with both Koreas, as well as the United States, and promoting a peaceful resolution for inter-Korean relations has been of special interest for Mongolian officials. Shortly after the announcement of the U.S.-North Korea summit, former Mongolian President Ts. Elbegdorj tweeted, “Korean Peninsula: A long waited breakthrough! Here is an offer: US President Trump and NK leader Kim meet in UB. Mongolia is the most suitable, neutral territory.” He also highlighted the “continuing legacy” of the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, a Track 1.5 multilateral forum started under Elbegdorj to encourage greater cooperation among Northeast Asian countries. Similarly, current Mongolian President Kh. Battulga welcomed the opportunity to host the potential summit and his chief of staff met with both U.S. and North Korean officials on March 16 to discuss the possibility.
While other neutral sites may appeal to both the U.S. and North Korea, Mongolia has the unique advantage of geographic proximity to Pyongyang. When Kim Jong-un traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month, he took a heavily secured 21-car train from North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. Kim’s father and grandfather both also traveled by train for foreign visits. Of the speculated sites, Ulaanbaatar is one of the only feasible options reachable by train. Analysts have questioned the logistical and political hazards of long-distance air travel for the summit, and if North Korea deems the risks of farther locations in Europe or Southeast Asia too great, Kim Jong-un may opt for a closer site like Mongolia.
With the immense stakes that come with the U.S.-North Korea summit, North Korean officials would also have to feel comfortable with the potential host country, which they have demonstrated with Mongolia in prior occasions. In 2014 after a series of talks, Ulaanbaatar hosted a reunion between the daughter of a Japanese abductee residing in North Korea and her Japanese grandparents. North Korea also continues to participate in Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, which North Korean officials expressed support for during a recent visit by Mongolia’s foreign minister to Pyongyang.
Insight into what location the U.S. and North Korea are currently favoring for the summit is minimal, though reportedly the host site has become a contentious point between officials from both countries. Certainly other locations hold their own advantages (Kim Jong-un may feel nostalgic for Switzerland where he studied in his youth) that may lead to the summit being held elsewhere, but Mongolia would enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to bolster its regional mediating role in Northeast Asia.
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.