Mongolia: Potential Mediator between the Koreas and Proponent of Peace in Northeast Asia

2014 was a relatively friendless year for the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). It publicly lost its best friend and patron, China, to its erstwhile nemesis, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea), when Presidents Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping celebrated their growing friendship at the July summit in Seoul. Recently, retired PLA General Wang Hongguang wrote in the Chinese language site of Global Times, which is closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party, that China tired of cleaning up North Korea’s “mess” and would not step in to “save” North Korea if it collapses or starts a war.[1] And there is a vigorous debate in Beijing on whether the DPRK should be treated on a “normal” basis with China’s interests as the sole guide and purpose or be treated as a special case needing China’s indulgence and protection.[2] Since the Sony hack of November, North Korea has been under tighter scrutiny, both real and virtual, by Seoul, Beijing and Washington, accompanied by tighter sanctions in the new year. Bludgeoned by global condemnation of its atrocious human rights record, Pyongyang’s pariah status has intensified. Only Russia has been warming up to North Korea out of its own economic and political self-interest.

Is there any sizable country with good intentions for the region that is not giving up or beating up on North Korea? Is there any country Pyongyang likes and possibly even trusts? Mongolia stands out as the sole candidate, and it is friendly with both the East and the West.

Since the 2000s, Mongolia has played an increasingly constructive and steady role in in its bilateral ties with the DPRK and in its promotion of peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who visited Pyongyang in 2013, was the first head of state to reach out to the DPRK since Kim Jung Un assumed power and helped author the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asia Security,” which held its first meeting in June, 2014. It is a unique forum that combines official (track one) and unofficial academic/think tank/NGO (track two) participants, on a variety of important regional issues. The goals are to decrease distrust among nations and increase cooperation and peace. Both the DPRK and the ROK (Republic of Korea or South Korea) were represented at the inaugural meeting, as were the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and some European nations.

The UB Dialogue, as a consultative mechanism, has the potential to bring together policymakers, international organizations such as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and civil society entities and facilitate a range of initiatives related to economic cooperation; military transparency; environmental issues; non-traditional security threats; regional stability, cultural and educational exchange among the participants, including the two Koreas. These are official agenda items and goals of the UB Dialogue. With the Six-Party Talks nearly defunct and inter-Korean relations unable to address regional issues that affect the peninsula, Mongolia may be able to serve as a “Geneva or Helsinki of the East” as some observers have suggested.

Mongolia’s expanding global presence

Mongolia is uniquely positioned as the only country in Northeast Asia that enjoys good relations not only with North Korea but also South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan.

Mongolia’ relations with the United States, Canada, and Western Europe have steadily improved and deepened since the late 1980s. In recent decades, both Democratic and Republication administrations in Washington have enjoyed mutually warm and collaborative relations with Mongolia. President George W. Bush was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country in 2005; he thanked the Mongolians for sending troops to join U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and for supporting anti-terrorism initiatives. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also visited in the same year. In 2007, President Nambaryn Enkhbayar visited Washington to co-sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact with President Bush. The next (and current) leader, President Elbegdorj, met U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011, as did the first civilian Minister of Defense, L. Bold. Vice President Joe Biden included Mongolia on a three-country Asia visit in August, 2011; China and Japan were the other two. A year later, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took her turn in Ulaanbaatar. The most recent visit by top-level U.S. officials to Mongolia was by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in April 2014.

Mongolia’s pursuit of the “third neighbor” policy allows the country to develop cooperative relations with the United States, Western Europe, ASEAN nations and others partly as “an air pocket” from its economic and security reliance on Beijing and Moscow. The softer side of this diplomatic push has been demonstrated by Ulaanbaatar’s membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its previous chairmanship of the Community on Democracies.”[3]

Western experts on Mongolia applaud the way the country has developed a unique “peacekeeping niche” that facilitates participation in UN peacekeeping activities, international anti-terrorism measures, and humanitarian actions. For its small population of about three million, Mongolia takes on a heavy load of peacekeeping activities, ranking 26th on the UN’s list of contributing nations.[4]

Since 2003, Mongolia annually hosts the “Khaan Quest” peacekeeping exercises for the purpose of tactical advancement and capacity building for its Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) and for the improvement of regional confidence building. Although the United States and NATO play prominent roles, the Quest has attracted more diverse participants over the years so that by 2012, the number of interested parties expanded to include representatives from China and India as well as an array of developing nations such as Vietnam and Cambodia. These exercises are acknowledged as gatherings devoted to strengthening international cooperation and interoperability on peacekeeping initiatives around the world.[5]

On the economic side, Mongolia has been diversifying its external relations, with the maintenance of sovereignty and the related desire to reduce its overwhelming dependence on China as important goals. Expansion of economic relations is driven in part by a desire to participate in and benefit from global standards investment funds, and market access is a national priority. In that context, Mongolia’s relations with the West have been constructive and collaborative. For example, in 2013, the United States Trade Representative Michael Froman and Mongolia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Luvsanvandan Bold, signed the Agreement on Transparency in Matters Related to International Trade and Investment between the United States of America and Mongolia. The Agreement commits the parties to provide opportunities for public comment on proposed laws and regulations and to publish final laws and regulations in Mongolian and English in order to facilitate access, openness, fairness, and procedural coherence in international trade and investment between Mongolia and other countries. “Additional commitments address the application of disciplines on bribery and corruption.” This type of administrative and legal modernization and the incorporation of measures to prevent and correct corruption are exemplary measures that could be helpful to the DPRK and other countries that are unfamiliar with or lagging in appropriate frameworks for doing business with diverse international actors.

Maintaining sovereignty between giants

China and Russia have vied for influence over Mongolia for many decades, from the time when Mongolia was in the Soviet sphere in influence to the present. Although 89 percent of foreign trade in 2013 was with China and Russia provides about 75 percent of Mongolia’s gasoline and diesel fuel and much of its electricity, Ulaanbaatar is assertively broadening and deepening its economic interests with the two big neighbors, especially greater transportation access and cheaper costs (vital to the landlocked nation), participation in the development of the New Silk Road corridor, and the construction of a Russian oil and gas pipeline through Mongolia that reaches China. All three countries have mutual interests and investments in developing Mongolia’s well-endowed mining industry.

But being sandwiched between two giants means Mongolia has to be prudent in preserving its sovereignty and independence, and Ulaanbaatar has done so in practical ways, balancing the two large powers’ interests with its own. The 2010 National Security Concept’s “One-Third Clause” sets a clear limit on the proportion of foreign direct investment from any one country: one-third. Legislation limits (foreign) state-owned companies from gaining control of strategic assets. And as numerous bilateral security and military cooperation agreements link Mongolia with China and Russia, UB has strategically and legally created elbow room for its autonomy. The government’s National Security and Foreign Policy Concepts outline a specific policy of not allowing foreign troops the use of its territory. Such preservationist measures to maintain sovereignty and independence in economic and security terms would be welcome examples to a North Korea which zealously prioritizes national sovereignty.

Mongolia and the Korean peninsula

Mongolia’s potential role as a non-nuclear peace broker in the region was further evidenced by its successful hosting of DPRK-Japan negotiations since 2012, which have yielded bilateral progress on longstanding abduction issues. In March 2014, Ulaanbaatar hosted the first-ever reunion between the parents of one of the abductees, Megumi Yokota (whom North Korea claims is dead), and her daughter, son-in-law, and their child who live in North Korea. Mongolia also served as a neutral venue for high-level talks on normalizing Japan-DPRK relations back in September 2007 as part of the Six-Party Talks framework. Asia Times reported that “arranging this recent meeting reflected Ulaanbaatar’s ‘contribution to satisfy regional stability in Northeast Asia’ and how it could play a role in deepening understanding and normalizing DPRK-Japan relations.” President Elbegdorj’s administration took particular care in staging the negotiations, including the use of the official state compound in Ikh Tenger as the meeting place. According to Alicia Campi, an American expert on Mongolia and the author of the AT article, Ikh Tenger was requested by the North Koreans.[6]

Mongolian President Elbegdorj is often described as an activist head of state, both for his focused efforts on developing Mongolia internally and advancing the country’s role and contributions internationally. One of his main foreign policy priorities is to promote regional economic integration and cooperation and peace and security. Dialogue and trust-building, two key components of his approach, coincide with ROK President Park Geun-hye’s emphasis on trustpolitik and the proposed Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI). Both NAPCI and the UB Dialogue seek to chip away at distrust among Northeast Asian countries and increase collaboration and cooperation through multi-layered activities, including mutually reinforcing Track 1, 1.5 and 2 gatherings. Both emphasize multilateral cooperation on non-traditional security issues and people-to-people exchanges as ways to help build trust and resolve regional problems step by step. NAPCI held a track 1.5 forum in October 2014 in Seoul. In sharp contrast to its reaction to the first UB Dialogue of June that year, the DPRK flatly rejected the invitation to participate in the Seoul dialogue and criticized NAPCI as a cover for pressuring Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear program and for reunification by absorption.[7]

There is no reason why the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue and NAPCI cannot be complementary and mutually reinforcing. Given that trust in inter-Korean relations is non-existent while Mongolia has gained deeper trust with both Koreas over the past two decades, NAPCI activities could benefit from Mongolia’s unique position in its relations with the DPRK. Ulaanbaatar potentially can serve as a neutral meeting ground, literally and metaphorically, for Pyongyang and Seoul. Moreover, given that the NAPCI seeks to maintain a cooperative relationship with other multilateral bodies and places emphasis on complementarity and inclusiveness, working with and supporting successful rounds of the UB Dialogues would be a principled move on the part of South Koreans. Moreover, engagement with North Korea through the UB Dialogue most likely represents an easier path to increasing inter-Korean trust than bilateral efforts and even easier than the NAPCI. South Korea’s domestic divisions and bitter left-right infighting tend to weaken the government’s position in approaches to the North. Seoul’s military standoff and competition with the North, its alliance with the United States, and participation in international sanctions regimes all cause suspicion in Pyongyang. In short, Seoul’s complex list of concerns and goals, some of which are contradictory to the spirit and practice of trust-building and cooperation with North Korea, create difficult conditions for progress through NAPCI alone.

In addition to lacking this baggage, Mongolia has unique standing with both North and South. It is a former Soviet satellite state that asserted full independence in 1990, and it is notable for successfully transitioning from a communist state to a vibrant democracy without civil war or bloodshed. President Elbegdorj’s 2013 speech in Pyongyang contained strong enunciation of the tenets of liberty. At the elite Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, he addressed students with these bold words: “No tyranny lasts forever. It is the desire of the people to live free that is the eternal power.” And the Mongolian government has been keeping its border open to North Koreans who risk the arduous journey out of the DPRK and has permitted its airlines to transport them to South Korea.

Additionally, Mongolia has become a model of economic modernization and prosperous participation in the global economy. Although it faces some economic imbalances, its GDP rate was sky-high at 11.7 percent in 2013. There are good lessons to share with North Korea, and President Elberdorgj has made it clear that Mongolia would be very willing to work with the DPRK on economic development, IT, infrastructure, the management of mining precious earth resources and refineries. The two countries also engage in a worker exchange program, affording DPRK citizens the opportunity to breathe the air of freedom and to be exposed to South Korean television programming while they reside in Mongolia.

In recent years, Mongolia has pursued multiple types of people-to-people activities involving North Koreans, including academic exchanges, northeast Asian mayoral forums, and women’s parliamentary exchanges including female leaders from both Koreas. In June 2015, the second Track 2 conference of the UB Dialogue will convene in Ulaanbaatar with scholars from across the region and the United States with the theme of “Energy, Infrastructure, and Regional Connectivity.”

Sports and cultural initiatives in the past years have included international boxing matches in Ulaanbaatar with boxers from the DPRK, ROK, Mongolia, Russia and China. In 2013, Mongolia established an International Cooperation Fund which has supported children’s summer camps, basketball training and other exchanges with the DPRK in order to promote positive peace and people-to-people development in the region.

In the humanitarian arena, food aid to the DPRK has been channeled through international organizations, and the two countries have cooperated on physician exchanges. Prior research by Caprara and Ballen, conducted in cooperation with United Nations Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals and for Malaria, has noted the additional soft power benefits of cooperative service development projects.

A recent global development forum hosted at the United Nations Asia-Pacific headquarters in Bangkok launched an Asia Pacific Peace Service Alliance which could build on these bilateral and regional exchanges in the critical area of humanitarian action and development in North Korea. An International Youth Leaders Assembly has been proposed in Ulaanbaatar for June, 2015, which would further the role of youth in fostering track two initiatives of service and dialogue.

Dr. Tsedendamba Batbayar, Mongolia’s Director of Policy Planning in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, visited Washington in November, 2014 and noted the broad range of Mongolia-DPRK exchanges. Together with Mongolia Ambassador Bulgaa Altangerel, he emphasized his country’s desire to serve as a fair broker and mediator for the Northeast Asia region and to pursue prudent and practical measures to help build bridges of understanding between the people of North Korea and other parties.

But despite its uniquely constructive approach to dealing with the DPRK and other regional neighbors, Mongolia faces unique challenges in the mediator role it seeks to achieve. First, Ulaanbaatar has been able to gain Pyongyang’s trust because of the quiet diplomacy it has pursued, staying behind the scenes and out of the limelight. This has enabled a steady channel to the Pyongyang elite, and a focus on bilateral interests has been maintained. In short, drama has been avoided. But if Mongolia plays a more high-profile role with North Korea and multilateral actors, it will most likely be difficult to avoid some drama—posturing, rhetoric, and standoffs—emanating from various parties. Second, any increased or intensified involvement of China, Russia, and the United States in UB-led dialogue could come with the headache of big power arrogance and competition over leadership. The value of Mongolia’s role and activities for regional cooperation and peace stems from the fact that Ulaanbaatar does not assume airs or seek to dominate others. Whether China, Russia, and the United States would be able to refrain from seeking leadership and disproportionate influence in UB-led initiatives is highly questionable. Third, with respect to peninsular issues, for the UB Dialogues to gain more acceptance and credibility regionally and internationally requires that the DPRK become a consistent and collaborative presence at gatherings. Whether any nation or actor has the capacity to deliver consistent and collaborative participation by Pyongyang is an open question.

In addition, some observers believe that the impasse between North Korea and other nations is not simply the result of a trust deficit, but reflects mutually exclusive goals. While Mongolian mediation may not be able to solve the nuclear issue, it can be an effective channel – among others – for increasing communication, finding common ground, and beginning to ease tension.

Mongolia is the one Northeast Asian country that has kept its emotional cool and balanced policy interests with North Korea and other regional actors. It has not tripped over its own feet by politicizing historical grievances with its neighbors. Rather, it has exercised a calm can-do approach while its neighbors have engulfed themselves in hyper-nationalistic and ideological mire. And it has smartly used diplomacy and entrepreneurship to make friends and develop its own economy and people. These are significant assets that can be of benefit not only to UB but also to the region.


1. The Obama administration should actively support the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue process and encourage Seoul to find common cause in advancing greater regional dialogue and collaboration with the Mongolians through Track 2 and 1.5 processes. A precedent for this can be found in the case of Oman, which the current administration effectively tapped for back channel dialogue with Iran, kick-starting the present nuclear talks. Also, support by Washington would build on a prior exchange with Mongolia hosted by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), where scholars noted potential benefits from three-way economic cooperation and the possibility of providing the North Koreans with a proven model of transformation from a closed statist system to a prosperous and more open system.

2. ROK President Park’s proposed regional cooperation mechanism should receive serious attention together with the Ulaanbaatar initiative. The two parallel efforts could benefit from being part of inter-connected strategies to defuse regional tension and forge greater trustpolitik.

3. The UN ESCAP headquarters can serve as an important multilateral bridge for humanitarian aid together with the multi-stakeholder Asia Pacific Peace Service Alliance (APPSA), which was launched at the UN headquarters in Bangkok last October. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could partner with UN ESCAP and the World Food Program to establish a verifiable humanitarian aid regime, building on prior food aid oversight protocols developed during the Bush administration. Mongolia also would be an excellent candidate for the training of an international volunteer corps for potential disaster and humanitarian relief and economic development projects concerning the DPRK and the broader Northeast Asia region. Mongolia has excellent working relations with the U.S. Peace Corps, which also helped facilitate the recent launch of the APPSA.

4. In the context of peninsula unification planning, regional economic cooperation on private and multi-stakeholder investment projects and the enabling of market-friendly policies could be further explored with Mongolia and other Northeast Asian partners in areas such as infrastructure, energy, and technology.5. Cultural and educational exchanges between Mongolia and the DPRK could be expanded on a multilateral basis over time to include the ROK, China, Russia, Japan and ASEAN nations together with UNESCO to further cultural bases and norms of peace.




[4] Ibid.



[7] Voice of America, Korean language version,