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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
Geographically remote and marginalized from participation in regional security dialogue, Mongolia has once again made a small foray into multilateral discussions over North Korea-related issues.
During a recent visit to Ulaanbaatar for talks with his Mongolian counterpart Damdin Tsogtbaatar, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono implored Mongolian assistance in resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.
The two sides also reportedly agreed on the need to maintain pressure against Pyongyang in the form of sanctions.
Tokyo has recently sought to engage Pyongyang directly, with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe expressing willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un. North Korea, however, has been cool toward Japanese overtures.
The meeting between Japan and Mongolia’s chief diplomats comes on the heels of the sixth Ulaanbaatar Security Dialogue (UBD). The UBD has, since 2013, brought together participants from across Northeast Asia in a neutral forum where participants openly discuss issues according to Chatham House Rules.
In spite of Kim Jong Un’s dismissal of Abe’s gesture, Japanese officials hoped to meet directly with delegates from the DPRK at this year’s UBD. Nevertheless, Pyongyang withdrew its participation in the 2019 gathering in Ulaanbaatar, frustrating Japanese attempts at direct engagement with the North. North Korea’s withdrawal from this year’s UBD is somewhat surprising, given that Pyongyang has normally been a supporter of the Mongolian initiative.
Mongolia has hoped to position itself as a mediating force in North Korean security issues
Post-communism, Mongolian foreign policy is based on a policy of strict neutrality. Ulaanbaatar pursues a neutral position in diplomacy and interstate relations so as to prevent itself from becoming geopolitically entrapped by any single power or concert of states.
Although China and Russia by far comprise the biggest challenges to Mongolia’s maintenance of sovereignty, Ulaanbaatar nevertheless takes great care to not allow itself to become beholden to other less powerful states including Japan and the ROK, on which Mongolia depends in part for economic assistance and investment.
As far as the Korean peninsula is concerned, the Republic of Mongolia maintains diplomatic equilibrium between Pyongyang and Seoul in part to preserve an air of non-alignment with the informal but very real blocs involved in the Korean security crisis.
Furthermore, Mongolia values economic cooperation with both the DPRK and the ROK; the former providing Mongolia with access to the Pacific Ocean via the port of Rason-Khasan, and the latter for its vast investment potential.
In the context of the Korean security crisis, neutrality positions Ulaanbaatar to act in a mediating role between the DPRK and South Korea as well as the U.S. This in turn, Ulaanbaatar hopes, will cement other states’ respect for Mongolian sovereignty, insofar as Mongolia’s unique position serves as a method of advancing peace in Northeast Asia.
Japan’s direct outreach to the Mongolian government shortly after Tokyo’s failed attempt of dialogue with the DPRK on neutral Mongolian territory highlights Ulaanbaatar’s unique position in the North Korean security crisis. Although Mongolian diplomacy is ensconced in the notion of neutrality, Mongolian foreign policy emphasizes an orientation toward the Northeast Asia sub-region.
Mongolia’s relationship with Japan is based in part on the latter’s status as one of the largest donors to Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar has recently sought to expand trilateral cooperation between itself, Tokyo and Washington. Beijing and Moscow – which yield considerable geopolitical influence over Mongolia – could potentially see such trilateral cooperation with Japan and the U.S. as threatening.
The Mongolian government, however, has declared that the reason for such collaboration is to advance Ulaanbaatar’s interests in the North Korean security crisis.
Mongolia has hoped to position itself as a mediating force in North Korean security issues since the onset of the second North Korean security crisis.
Given Mongolia’s diminutive stature in Northeast Asian affairs, Ulaanbaatar relies in part upon American support for Mongolian participation in Northeast Asian security dialogues. At the same time, Washington has been largely unwilling to allow Mongolia a role as a direct mediator in the current standoff over Pyongyang’s WMD program.
Mongolia’s strict neutrality vis-à-vis the Korean security crisis has occasionally come under question, particularly in light of communications between Ulaanbaatar and Washington over North Korea unveiled during the Wikileaks revelations.
Although Mongolia’s diplomatic stance allows Ulaanbaatar room to maneuver in Northeast Asia’s tight geopolitical environment, Mongolia does have a concrete vested interest in seeing Northeast Asia realize greater security.
Post-communist Mongolian foreign policy is based on a policy of strict neutrality
Today, Mongolia and North Korea have a friendship treaty that calls, among other things, for mutual cooperation in securitizing the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the Mongolian government supports integrating North Korea economically with the rest of Northeast Asia. However, post-Cold War Mongolia-North Korea relations have not been without trials, depending in part upon the state of Ulaanbaatar’s ties with Seoul.
In particular, positive developments in Seoul-Ulaanbaatar ties have had negative implications for Mongolia’s ties with the DPRK. This has been particularly true not only of the general state of Mongolia’s relations with either one of the Koreas, but has also occurred in light specific issues such as past Mongolian assistance to North Korean refugees attempting to flee to the ROK.
At the same time, Mongolia has pressed for North Korea to implement reforms, albeit in a subtle manner. Rather than pontificating to the DPRK, Ulaanbaatar relies on using its experience transitioning to a democratic form of government and free-market economy to induce change within North Korea.
Ulaanbaatar’s best efforts notwithstanding, developments this month in Mongolia’s participation in resolving the North Korean security crisis underscore Ulaanbaatar’s limited capacity. Furthermore, the interplay between the DPRK, Japan, and Mongolia signal that the latter will have a tough time maintaining its position of neutrality.
North Korea’s dismissiveness toward Japanese overtures and Tokyo’s very public failed attempt to reach out to Pyongyang via Mongolia do not bode well for either Mongolia’s desire to use mediation or Japan’s hope that the Republic of Mongolia can play a positive role in advancing Japanese interests vis-à-vis the DPRK.
Deepening cooperation between Japan and Mongolia, while possibly serving both countries’ interests at the bilateral level, could also send the wrong message to Pyongyang about Mongolian neutrality. The onus will be on Ulaanbaatar, therefore to tread carefully in the midst of DPRK-Japan relations.
For the sake of maintaining its diplomatic balance between Pyongyang and Tokyo, Ulaanbaatar may find itself engaging in more direct outreach to the North in the coming months so as to assure the DPRK and developments in Japan-Mongolia relations don’t mislead the DPRK into thinking Mongolia is explicitly taking Tokyo’s side.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today