A Stronger Korea-Mongolia Link in a Changing Northeast Asia


As the constellation of relationships that has dominated Asia for decades begins to evolve towards a new dynamic, the vocabulary of change has begun to foreshadow a very different regional map, with some new trends holding the promise of stronger regional integration while others, perhaps, suggest increasing stresses and frictions. Of course, there is the still-emerging US “pivot” to Asia, which seems to confirm a longstanding, albeit enhanced, American military presence in the region, but there is also the opportunity for a new and more vital economic network among America’s regional trading partners through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). China, in its own way, appears to be following the same dualistic strategy: strengthening military capabilities but reaching out to other Asians (and beyond) with new economic structures, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Japan, for the first time in decades, is designing a significantly strengthened military alliance with the United States, while taking a higher diplomatic profile throughout the region as well. Smaller-sized nations are all scrambling to fit into these new patterns, while trying to resist dominance by the bigger players or to avoid being caught in the middle of major-power competition. And challenging any new potential for greater regional rapport is a strong upsurge in populist nationalism in almost all countries, often expressing itself in conflict over interpretations of history, territory, or national identity. North Korea remains the outlier, an autarchic state, a potential spoiler of any sense of inclusive community, and a danger through its nuclear weapons to the interests of almost all of its neighbors.

Amidst this fast-moving scene, both the Republic of Korea and Mongolia find themselves in similar strategic circumstances, despite many differences in size, economic development, and global influence. As nations with a surprisingly close history and newly-minted democracies, both would benefit from greater space to maneuver among assertive larger players as well as an effort to promote the values for which both stand. In some very specific instances—especially as concerns North Korea—, the two might work together advantageously to manage the region’s most intractable problems.

An 800-Year-old Connection1

Korea and Mongolia have been part of each other’s universes for at least 800 years. Korea was impacted by the great expansion of the Mongol Empire from the thirteenth century through the early fourteenth century, invaded and used as a staging ground for the unsuccessful Mongol assault on Japan. As the Ming Dynasty displaced the Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty in China, Koreans and Mongolians often found themselves on common ground, resisting that reassertion of Han Chinese rule. In the centuries afterwards, both the Mongolians and the Koreans developed a healthy suspicion of Chinese expansion and domination, and, of course, today China occupies both ethnic Mongolian and ethnic Korean areas within its borders.

In modern times, Mongolians also looked with apprehension at Japanese moves into Korea, Manchuria, and even Mongolian territory before World War II, and fought beside the Russians to repel Japanese advances into Northeast Asia. After the war, Mongolia was one of the first nations to recognize North Korea, in 1948, and sent food supplies to support Pyongyang during the Korean War. Kim Il-sung visited Mongolia at least twice during the Soviet era.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Mongolia quickly turned to democracy, and a warming of relations began with South Korea, which Mongolia recognized in 1990. In the subsequent quarter-century, relations between Seoul and Ulaanbaatar have flourished. South Korea has become Mongolia’s third largest aid donor and its fourth most important trade partner. Seoul also hosts the largest overseas Mongolian guest-worker community, and several thousand South Koreans with diverse occupations—Christian missionaries, small businessmen—are long-term residents of Mongolia. Mongolia has rendered a great humanitarian service to South Korea as well in quietly facilitating the relocation of a large number of North Korean refugees in recent years. (Surprisingly, this has been done with certain North Korean knowledge, but has not disrupted relations between Pyongyang and Ulaanbaatar.)

These extensive historical, economic, and social connections are reinforced by cultural and linguistic affinity. Mongolia and Korean are part of the same linguistic family and are mutually easier to learn than almost any outside language, certainly Chinese or English. South Korean television dramas and movies are popular in Mongolia, and Korean scholars have done extensive academic work on Mongolia. Frequent flights connect the two capitals in just a few hours, and two-way tourism is significant.

The Diplomatic Equation

Surveying the current diplomatic situation in Northeast Asia, one can find a promising environment for greater South Korea-Mongolia engagement, and the common American connection provides impetus for that. The US diplomatic perspective is that all three countries share something valuable: strong democratic institutions. American political leaders are well aware that Mongolia is the only true democracy between the Pacific coast and Eastern Europe north of the Himalayan range. This is well worth exploiting in several directions, inasmuch as established democracies have good reason to help new ones with best practices and advice, while Mongolia’s experience confirms the universal appeal and applicability of democratic principles.

A close observer would also notice the diversity of the democratic experience. Korea has long served as a model of democratic development, following its economic development and taking account of its rising middle class. This has been taken by many as the classic formula for success, but then Mongolia’s experience has been just the opposite: first came a commitment to democracy 25 years ago and only now is the country struggling with the development of its economy. Facing this unusual challenge, Ulaanbaatar both needs and deserves the strong support of more economically mature democratic societies. In large measure, Washington’s recognition of this circumstance inspired the award of a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program worth several hundred million dollars to Mongolia in 2007. To emphasize the symbolic point, President Bush took the unusual step of signing the compact himself in the White House during a summit meeting with Mongolian President Enkhbayar. Mongolia now is a candidate for a second MCA grant, which, if realized, will serve as a significant symbolic and practical spur to bilateral relations.

This commonality of values among the three countries has created extensive diplomatic cooperation. Both Korea and Mongolia supported the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both have contributed generously to United Nations peacekeeping operations on several continents. In fact, each year Mongolia hosts a peacekeeping military exercise, named Khaan Quest, in which the US Pacific Command plays a large role. Many other Asia countries also participate, and, in 2009, South Korea sent a contingent for the first time.

Mongolia has worked hard to reach out, especially to other democracies as part of its “third neighbor” policy of building links with countries beyond the two (Russia and China) on its borders. Its “third neighbor” partners are overwhelmingly powerful democracies: the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Europe. In concrete steps, Mongolia has become a participating state in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and, along with South Korea, a member of the Community of Democracies. Both Ulaanbaatar and Seoul have served in the rotating presidency of the second organization in recent years.

Ulaanbaatar’s “third neighbor” policy applies to economics as well. For example, in February of this year Mongolia signed its first-ever Economic Partnership Agreement, with Japan, which is expected to reduce tariffs on about 96 percent of combined total trade within the next decade. At the same time, Korea’s economic complementarity with Mongolia makes the two ideal trading partners. On the one hand, Mongolia has enormous resources of copper, coal, uranium, rare earths, and other resources—all of which are now open for bidding to foreign investors and buyers. Korea, on the other hand, is a mature manufacturing nation with very few natural resources or land for agriculture. It needs a dependable source of such commodities, and, in recent years, it has even gone abroad to secure land for raising crops to be exported home. Mongolia is a perfect fit for Korea’s trading needs, especially inasmuch as the Mongolians are sure to develop an increasing taste for Korean consumer products as their own economy matures.

As noted above, there are also compelling strategic reasons driving the two governments towards greater economic interaction. Both wish to diversify their economic contacts to avoid the “geographic trap” of their locations between more powerful or richer neighbors. If allowed, China would virtually “buy out” Mongolia’s resources, and Mongolia has always been dependent for energy on Russia, which also retains partial ownership of Mongolia’s railway system and a major Soviet-era copper mine. Although Mongolians must maintain positive relationships with their two huge near-neighbors to the south and north, they nevertheless seek options Korea also is fixed permanently between China and Japan: the former, its major trading partner and increasingly a competitor in exporting manufactured products, and the latter, the source of many of the high-tech components for its electronics exports. Thus, both countries face the necessity to diversify for strategic as well as economic independence. Neither by itself is the solution to the other’s problem, but each has a role in a strategy to gain “breathing room.” This common need reinforces the political and social values they share.

Then, there is the question of North Korea. Ulaanbaatar and Seoul’s complementary and shared interests in relations with Pyongyang also draw them together. China’s economic and diplomatic profile has grown rapidly in North Korea, so the Republic of Korea has to use every lever it has to maintain contact and leverage with the North. Such an imperative is behind many of the policy pronouncements of the Park administration in Seoul, such as “trustpolitik” and the recent emphasis on reunification. As noted above, Mongolia has long placed itself in a position to have cordial relations with both North and South, and at one time or another, has provided aid or policy support to each in a sort of low-key balancing act. In addition to the initiatives already mentioned, Mongolia has launched an Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security, which nicely dovetails with the Park administration’s own initiative, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), as a way of drawing North Korean representatives into the larger Asian community. As a recent paper from the Brookings Institution indicates, these separate initiatives could be “mutually reinforcing” and could serve to promote Mongolia’s role as either go-between or a neutral venue for North-South communication.2

Such diplomatic outreach serves Mongolia’s interest in raising its diplomatic profile in Asia as a way of integrating itself within the broader Northeast Asian community and leveraging its role in mediation to underpin its own national independence. Mongolia’s recent role in hosting Japan-North Korean normalization talks in Ulaanbaatar as part of the Six-Party process as well as its serving as a venue in 2014 for a reunion of families of Japanese who were abducted to North Korea are likewise intended to brand Mongolia as a force for regional reconciliation.

Mongolia has developed a near pitch-perfect ability to navigate the treacherous currents between North and South Korea. For years, it has helped North Korean refugees transit the country for resettlement in South Korea; yet President Elbegdorj was one of the first international leaders to visit Pyongyang after the accession of Kim Jong-un. While there, he delivered a public speech praising the virtue of a free society. The Mongolians have made their unhappiness with North Korean nuclear weapons tests clear and have long promoted a nuclear-weapons-free Northeast Asia, but these views have not harmed the bilateral relationship with the North. Indeed, few countries, if any, have managed to walk the North-South tightrope quite so skillfully. For all its aid to Pyongyang, the Chinese leadership remains clearly at odds with the North Koreans, and President Xi Jinping has yet to visit the country. If rumors are to be believed, China has even turned down Pyongyang’s recent request to join the AIIB.

Creating Closer Relationships

The foregoing stresses the reasons for bringing Mongolia more systematically into an inclusive Northeast Asian community as well as some of the concrete benefits that might ensue, including improving contacts between North and South Korea. However, several practical steps need to be taken to ensure that this potential is realized.3

1) US policymakers should recognize their own role as a catalyst in promoting a strengthened and more inclusive Northeast Asian community. The first step would be to exploit the natural affinity between the United States and Asian democracies. Washington should be a persistent advocate of a higher regional profile for fellow democratic states, including Mongolia. It is strange that Xi Jinping has advocated publicly long-delayed APEC membership for Mongolia, but that Barack Obama has not. This is an oversight to remedy as soon as possible. Moreover, Washington should endeavor to promote, in a low-key way that does not threaten other countries, a deeper consultative process with Asian democracies. Over the years, for example, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff has extended consultations from Japan, to Korea, to trilateral contacts among the three countries. Since both Seoul and Tokyo are deeply involved in Mongolia, perhaps American diplomats should now take the initiative to design periodic quadrilateral policy consultations among the region’s democracies, including Mongolia. In addition, the United States should make completion of a second MCA program the centerpiece of bilateral relations with Mongolia over the next year or so.

2) More serious work needs to be done by Seoul, as well, to extract the potential of its strong connections with Ulaanbaatar. Korean diplomats, for example, could immediately initiate negotiations with Ulaanbaatar about coordinating the efforts of their own NAPCI concept with Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar Initiative. A central focus of such consultations surely must be a common effort to draw North Korea into the regional conversation. Perhaps one useful idea would be to fund a permanent secretariat for the Ulaanbaatar Initiative in the Mongolian capital and invite North and South Korean diplomats, along with those of other participating nations, to assign permanent staff to it.

3) Seoul should continue vigorously to fulfill the intentions announced in President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Mongolia in August 2011. The communique issued on that occasion called for greater cooperation in natural resource development, electricity, and renewable energy, as well as joint development of uranium ore and rare earth materials4. The health ministers also signed an MOU on cooperation in the medical sector. Korea agreed to invest in Mongolia’s infrastructure and construction sectors, including a project to build 100,000 apartment units in Mongolia, to expand air routes, and to simplify the visa process between the two countries. Implementing and then building further on this commitment would benefit both countries and greatly enhance their ability to act together diplomatically in the entire region.

4) Likewise, it might well be beneficial for Japan to institutionalize its own periodic meetings with the North Koreans in the Mongolian capital, as a means to maintain a permanent dialogue about issues such as resolution of the abductees problem, potential normalization, or even legitimate Japanese concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Tokyo and Ulaanbaatar should move swiftly as well to exploit the potential of their recent Economic Partnership Agreement.

5) Finally, it would seem that the time has come to strengthen the use of Mongolian diplomacy within the UN system. Mongolia has played an increasing role in UN peacekeeping efforts, far out of proportion to its modest population. These efforts comprise not only participation in peacekeeping missions around the globe, but also hosting of the annual “Khaan Quest” exercises. There is no reason that the United Nations itself could not host much-needed conferences on Northeast Asian security, inviting all relevant member states (including North Korea), as a way of moving beyond frozen bilateral and multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang. Ulaanbaatar would be the most widely acceptable venue for such an initiative. Moreover, it might not be too fanciful to hope that such new consultative architecture would somewhat alleviate the many bilateral frictions among the countries involved over security issues. Also, to the extent that Northeast Asian nations are enmeshed in such new multilateral arrangements, smaller and mid-sized participants can create some balance to the current tilt towards one or another of their powerful neighbors.

The prospect of such diplomatic interaction would strengthen Mongolia’s ability to contribute as a fellow democracy to the stability of Northeast Asia, allowing Ulaanbaatar to join Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington in laying the foundation for a more prosperous and secure region.

1. I am indebted to Christopher Atwood of the Central Eurasian Studies Department, Indiana University, whose talk at The Korea Society in New York on October 6, 2011 was a source for much of the detail in the summary of this section. His full remarks are available online at koreasociety.org.

2. David L. Caprara, Katharine H.S. Moon, and Paul Park, “Mongolia: Potential Mediator between the Koreas and Proponent of Peace in Northeast Asia,” Brookings East Asia Commentary, no. 84, January 2015.

3. These recommendations are the views of the author alone and do not represent policy positions of The Korea Society, of which he is the president.

4. Gadaad Hariltsaa, “The Joint Communique of Mongolia and the Republic of Korea,” Foreign Relations, no. 10 (225), August 2011, 7-10.

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