Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” Doctrine and North Korea

The collection of classified U.S. government documents that was released by “WikiLeaks” in late 2010 continues to trigger questions and implications. The reaction to the leaked documents is in many cases more interesting than the cables themselves. For example, there has been very little reaction to one interesting document which reports North Korea’s alleged “approach” to Washington via Mongolia. There has been some commentary in the media and blogosphere, mostly in Mongolia, but much of it is misleading, oversimplified, and exaggerated.

The WikiLeaks Revelation

Leaving some room for errors in interpretation (difficult to avoid when dealing with three languages) and other possible alterations during the recounting of the original conversation, the storyline is that North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong-Il, while visiting Mongolia in August 2009 for routine bilateral talks, apparently confided to his Mongolian counterpart that he thought that “there are no eternal enemies in the world” and that Pyongyang would rather see itself engaged in direct talks with Washington without the mediation of “hopeless” institutions as the Six-Party Talks.[1] According to the Mongolian source who described the conversation to a U.S. embassy officer, this “message” was not read from a prepared script, and the senior North Korean official did not criticize the United States.

It is these few facts that were made known to the American diplomats in Ulaanbaatar, were reported back to Washington, and eventually made their way to international media via WikiLeaks. Despite the scant information, observers—mostly in Mongolia—have put forth two main interpretations of the episode.

The first imagines that “secret information,” perhaps even a “written message,” was passed from North Korea to the United States through Mongolian facilitation.[2] However, as Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in an official statement, we now know that the Mongolia-DPRK bilateral talks in August 2009 included no secret deals and were subject to no hidden agenda. In other words, to the dismay of some pundits, Ulaanbaatar did not act on behalf of Washington. Mongolia’s candid conversations with North Korea and then the United States, therefore, cannot indicate Mongolia’s foreign policy inclinations.

The second line of commentary based on this episode is more general, and overinflates Mongolia’s capacity and its role in the ongoing drama featuring North Korea and the United States. Some daily newspapers portrayed the Mongolia-North Korea talks as an illustration of confidence and trust in Mongolia by North Korea. More specifically, some observers claimed that the suggestion by Vice Foreign Minister Kim to his counterparts was evidence of Mongolia’s ability to play a pivotal role in stabilizing this dangerous situation.

While these assumptions are inaccurate on the surface, even more unfortunate is that they are often put forth as successful outcomes of Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” doctrine of foreign policy, which it has pursued steadily throughout the past two decades. This conclusion is based on a serious misunderstanding and requires clarification of the “Third Neighbor” doctrine itself, and of how both the United States and North Korea can qualify as third neighbors.

Mongolia’s Third Neighbor Doctrine

The term “third neighbor” was coined by then-Secretary of State James A. Baker when, in an August 1990 address to the Mongolian nation, he referred to the United States as Mongolia’s third neighbor (in addition to geographical neighbors China and the Soviet Union). A rhetorical gesture to support the nation’s first move toward democracy (Mongolia had held the first free elections in the Soviet bloc east of Europe in July of that year), it meant more to Mongolians than to any American present at the speech. The idea, possibly quickly forgotten in Washington, was immediately picked up by the Mongolian elite.

Widely used in Mongolian media and scholarly works throughout the 1990s, the term was not reciprocated until the late 1990s, when, as Dr. Alicia Campi, president of the Mongolia Society recalls, American officials agreed that their Mongolian counterparts could refer to the United States as a “third neighbor.”[3] Then in 2005 President George W. Bush reiterated that the United States is “proud to be called” Mongolia’s “third neighbor.” President Bush used this term while in Mongolia (he was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country), in part in recognition of the successes of Mongolia’s democratization and in part in recognition of Mongolia’s support of U.S. efforts in the Global War on Terror.

Because the term “third neighbor” is of American origin and outside Mongolia is used most visibly by Americans, it is often misinterpreted as a euphemism for pro-U.S. stances held by Mongolia, and for its alleged desire to forge a virtual alliance with Washington. This is an intellectual shortcut that has led some to believe that Ulaanbaatar plays a role in promoting American values and an American agenda, and this mindset contributed to misunderstandings, both inside and outside of Mongolia, of the North Korean episode revealed by WikiLeaks. The misinterpretation described above is nothing but an aberration of Ulaanbaatar’s nuanced approach to “third neighborhood” and an exaggeration of its actual intentions,[4] not to mention its capacity.[5]

Rather than a simple term masking pro-American intentions, the “Third Neighbor” doctrine is rather a collective socio-psychological consensus that the Mongolian state and society reached in the aftermath of the 1990 democratic revolution. It is based on the self-perception of a small state with experience of subservience to neighboring great powers and an indigenous culture, sometimes seen as the “northernmost extension of the Indosphere,” flanked by three of the world’s great civilizations—Christendom, Islam, and Confucian East Asia.

It also derives from the self-perception of a fledgling liberal democracy situated between countries ruled by authoritarian regimes and is especially influenced by the absence of a regional security and integration mechanism of like-minded nations, a geopolitical advantage that fellow former socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe have in contrast to Mongolia. Moreover, it is based upon experiences with an unequal alliance and a simplified view of world affairs (the “us” versus “them” dichotomy) that were imposed by the Soviets and which did a great disservice to the Mongolian nation.

Last but not least, this virtual “third neighborhood” derives from historically close ties and good will with other countries which are often based on shared values, common interests or even mere societal sympathy. In this context one could identify as third neighbors India, eloquently styled Mongolia’s “spiritual neighbor” owing to the fact that much of Mongolia’s intellectual and cultural heritage stems from the subcontinent; and Japan, reflecting both that nation’s staunch and generous support of Mongolia’s economic growth and also the intense cultural and humanitarian relations between the two nations in part owing to the generally pro-Japanese attitude of Mongolian society. The United States and a cohort of Western democracies undoubtedly also fall into this category, as does South Korea which is one of Mongolia’s largest trading partners. All of these “third neighbors” are indeed fellow democracies and strong economies that bring added value to the acts of cautious balancing of Russia and China and the projection of Mongolia’s place in the international arena.

However, the last thing the Mongolian government is willing to do is to act, once again, as the “mouthpiece” and “promoter of ideology” of any neighbor, real-world or virtual. This again derives from the lessons learned through alignment with the Soviets to the detriment of its own conscience in regional affairs, let alone speaking with an independent voice. In this regard, Mongolia could not, by default, “speak on behalf” of the United States, Japan, South Korea or any other democracy no matter how much it shares these countries’ values and common concerns about North Korea’s WMD program.

North Korea
as a “Third Neighbor”?

With strong rejection of the brutality of a totalitarian regime—Mongolia suffered its own Communist genocide in the 1930s—Ulaanbaatar nevertheless preserves signs of affinity to the North Korean state, despite obvious difficulty in delineating between the state and the regime. This lack of antipathy, if not outright sympathy, is in part based upon the memories of the more recent past. The socialist Mongolian People’s Republic was the third state to recognize the DPRK and rendered humanitarian assistance during the Korean War, even to the degree of being dubbed by Chiang Kai-shek as a “co-aggressor” in the war. War orphans from North Korea were sheltered in Mongolia during the late 1950s; and despite its hard-line pro-Soviet stance during the Sino-Soviet tensions, Ulaanbaatar maintained affinity with Pyongyang even as the latter repeatedly shifted its loyalties between the two Communist superpowers.[6]

Friendship with North Korea, even if it fairly superficial at this point, symbolizes Ulaanbaatar’s vehement desire to chart an independent foreign policy by diversifying its “neighbors” and partners. Pyongyang’s candidness with the former illustrates not only its confidence in Mongolia’s goodwill but also its recognition of Mongolia’s weakness relative to other powers in the region.

Japan and South Korea are U.S. allies and therefore are not trusted by North Korea. In the process of any talks, North Korea naturally favors China and Russia; but Pyongyang’s frustration with Beijing and Moscow is indicated in the WikiLeaks document. The approach to Mongolia is therefore likely a result of North Korea’s refusal to subordinate its agenda to those of larger neighbors with greater leverage. It is only natural, then, that North Korea wants to maintain a thin cord of communication with its American arch-adversary via other, non-bellicose, partners. Mongolia, with its relative geographical distance, absence of direct interest, and lack of power and leverage to influence the situation, is perceived in Pyongyang as just such a partner.

These facts counter the second misinterpretation of the report in the WikiLeaks document: that Mongolia’s ability to talk freely with North Korea and pass messages to the United States indicates a central role for Mongolia in North Korean issues. Instead, careful analysis rather than wishful thinking shows that it reflects Mongolia’s distance from the situation.

Furthermore, the openness of the North Korean official should not surprise anyone—especially perhaps his Mongolian counterparts who know from experience that in Communist states officials and intellectuals become increasingly cynical of the regime’s obsession with ideology. As a result of this cynicism, distance between thought and speech is so wide that occasional “candidness” under appropriate circumstances is only natural. Even if “candid” remarks appear to be extraordinarily novel, they would not indicate any seriousness of intention but would only show that there are cracks in the regime. However, no such serious revelation was apparently made in Ulaanbaatar. The North Korean official merely reiterated what Pyongyang has always sought—direct bilateral talks with and security assurances from Washington. At most, the fact that Vice Minister Kim did not read from a prepared script might reveal the psychological ease that North Koreans might feel in Ulaanbaatar.

WikiLeaks Fallout

It seems now that in this particular case WikiLeaks unwittingly served the interests of North Korea by portraying it as benign and interested in negotiation (even though the discussion in Mongolia occurred just one month after North Korea conducted two rounds of  missile test launches, and three months after it tested a second nuclear device). But it did a disservice to Mongolia by helping to generate the illusion that Mongolia is a proxy for U.S. interests in the region. This misperception is harmful not only to preserving the level of people-to-people openness between Mongolians and North Koreans, including diplomats and officials, but also to Mongolia’s efforts to demonstrate and promote in Northeast Asia the message that change is not dangerous and that democratization and respect for human rights does not undermine state sovereignty.

Perhaps the most interesting observation one can make from the leaked document and related commentary is that Mongolia and North Korea, which believe strongly in their respective incompatible political systems, have managed to forge a semblance of close ties. These ties are based neither on common interests nor shared values but exclusively on the psychological imperative to defend maximum sovereignty and maintain room for maneuver, albeit for diametrically opposite reasons.

[1] “WikiLeaks: Mongolia Passed North Korea Message to U.S.,” CNN, December 1, 2010;

[2] The popular Mongolian website posted an article mistakenly referring to the “North Korean message” as a “North Korean letter” on November 30, 2010.

[3] Alicia J. Campi “Mongolia’s Foreign Policy Vision for Eurasia,” speech at a Jamestown Foundation seminar, November 10, 2010 (unpublished).

[4] Christopher Schwartz “What We Should Know About the WikiLeaks Cables,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty transmission, December 1, 2010;

[5] Michael Busch “WikiLeaks XII: If It Had Its Druthers, Would North Korea Take the U.S. Over China?” in Foreign Policy in Focus blog, December 3, 2010;

[6] Batchimeg Migeddorj, “Mongolia’s DPRK Policy: Engaging North Korea,” Asian Survey, Vol 46 No. 2 (March-April 2006), pp 275–297.