Now that President Donald Trump has rolled the dice and accepted an invitation to meet North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un by May, a suitable venue needs to be found.
Already, the BBC has proposed at least five possible locations: North Korea or the United States (not likely); South Korea or China (possible); or a “neutral” location on the high seas (interesting, to say the least).
But why not consider other “out of the box” possibilities? Mongolia, for one, would be an intriguing place for the two leaders to meet, situated as it is on neutral ground in northeast Asia between two world powers (China and Russia), not far from North Korea and South Korea and often viewed as an “honest broker” because it somehow manages to enjoy cordial relations with each of them.
Indeed, former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, who himself visited North Korea while in office, tweeted soon after President Trump’s announcement to say that Mongolia would be the right venue for such a meeting.
“Mongolia is the most suited neutral territory,” he commented. “We facilitated important meetings including between Japan and NK.”
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. We facilitated important meetings, including between Japan and NK. Mongolia’s continuing legacy – UB dialogue on NEA
— Цахиагийн ЭЛБЭГДОРЖ (@elbegdorj) March 9, 2018
Meanwhile, Julian Dierkes at the University of British Columbia, a leading academic on contemporary Mongolian politics, made the same suggestion in a March 10 article in the The Diplomat, co-written with Mendee Jargalsaikhan, a colleague at the same university. In their words, “Ulaanbaatar emerges as the obvious choice for a meeting location.”
The fact that Mongolia is mentioned as a possible host nation for a landmark meeting involving Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim should not come as complete surprise, given Mongolia’s history as well as as its long-standing interest in facilitating such unlikely encounters.
For decades, Mongolia was part of the Soviet bloc and officially viewed North Korea as a friend. In fact, Mongolia was the second country to recognize North Korea, taking the decision in 1948 soon after the USSR became the first country to open diplomatic relations with that country. During and after the Korean War, one famous Mongolian woman took in and raised dozens of North Korean war orphans, earning the love of both Mongolians and Koreans for her service and sacrifice — service and sacrifice that are remembered to this day.
Until recently, hundreds of North Koreans worked in Mongolian factories and construction sites, earning valuable foreign exchange. As recently as February of this year, Mongolian Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar visited Pyongyang, affirming long-standing relationships between the two countries despite the overwhelming international pressure that North Korea faces on account of its aggressive nuclear program.
Simultaneously, Mongolia has deepened its economic ties with South Korea. Tens of thousands of Mongolians are now “guest workers” in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea while other Mongolians study in South Korean universities. Each year, a number of North Korean defectors make their way through China to Mongolia, traveling from there to South Korea as refugees.
In addition, increasing numbers of South Koreans visit Mongolia as tourists, cementing people-to-people relations still further. South Korean businessmen also invest in Mongolia and South Korean missionaries have worked in Mongolia for many years, becoming the catalysts for thriving churches in a number of Mongolian cities and towns.
‘Decision for Democracy’
The fact that Mongolia enjoys cordial relations with both Koreas is directly related to its “decision for democracy,” made nearly three decades ago. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Mongolia took a new course, one that saw it emerge from the shadows of a communist dictatorship into a full-fledged democracy marked by term limits for presidents as well as competitive political parties that are regularly voted in and out of office. This shift to democracy also included economic reform and a transition of a market economy, resulting in a tenfold increase in GDP between 2001 and 2013.
Prior to this decision, Mongolia was arguably as isolated as North Korea is now, visited by foreigners infrequently and interacting with only a limited number of other countries.
It is this past experience with isolation, communism and dictatorship that contribute to the Mongolian sense that its own history may ultimately prove beneficial to North Korea, demonstrating that a peaceful transition is possible and suggesting that there are alternative approaches that North Korea might yet want to pursue.
Mongolia’s approach to nuclear issues is also intriguing, including its long-standing commitment to declaring Mongolian a “nuclear free zone,” a step officially established in 2012. This formula, too, may ultimately be relevant to the entire Korean Peninsula, both North and South.
The fact that Mongolia has in recent years maintained cordial relations with both Koreas has intrigued U.S. diplomats. In meetings with American officials, Mongolia routinely indicated its interest in connecting “the hermit kingdom,” as North Korea is sometimes known, with the outside world. As it happens, this sentiment is even described in at least one Wikileaks cable, one of the few occasions in which Mongolia figures in Wikileaks at all.
As ambassador to Mongolia, I once asked the then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs for his views. He replied that Mongolia should be commended for “keeping the embers burning,” as far as its hoped-for role as an intermediary with North Korea is concerned. Although not needed then, he said the time may yet come when Mongolia can indeed play a useful role in encouraging diplomatic outreach involving North Korea.
Perhaps that moment has finally arrived, and perhaps Mongolia’s experience in connecting with the outside world, encouraging democracy, adopting a market-based economy and promoting nuclear free zones may one day prove useful and even welcome as well.
Jonathan Addleton teaches International Relations at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. A former US Ambassador to Mongolia (2009-2012) and USAID Mission Director in Mongolia (2001-2004), he now also serves as Executive Director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies. His books include “Some Far and Distant Place”, “The Dust of Kandahar” and “Mongolia and the United States: A Diplomatic History”.