Mongolia, once the center of the largest contiguous land empire of all time, is now seldom seriously considered in terms of current global politics. In fact, when U.S. National Security advisor John Bolton was assigned to visit Mongolia during President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, it was reported as a “banishment”.1 To Mongolia, however, Bolton’s visit signaled a continued interest in expanding U.S. trade relations and military cooperation with a rare ally in Central Asia.2
The United States’ interest in Mongolia is not surprising given Mongolia’s combination of rich mineral and agricultural resources with a desirable strategic location. Positioned directly between Russia and China, the two principal challengers to U.S. global interests, a strong relationship with Mongolia creates a U.S. foothold in the region. The majority of Mongolians view the United States favorably in spite of the country’s former communist status, and Mongolian armed forces have recently conducted operations and training with U.S. armed forces both in Mongolia and in the Middle East.3
For Mongolia, continued cooperation with the United States brings an opportunity to strengthen itself economically and politically. However, unlike most other U.S. allies, Mongolia has successfully maintained close ties with China and Russia as well. Stemming from physical proximity and Mongolia’s natural wealth, Russia and China combined account for 48% of all Mongolian imports, with China receiving the majority of Mongolian exports.4
After the establishment of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, Mongolia frequently cooperated with and was heavily influenced by the USSR. While its small nation status prevented it from becoming a major player in World War II, Mongolia maintained its sovereignty with Soviet support, providing in return essential resources for the Soviet Military. While Mongolia’s relationship with the Republic of China was strained by the history of colonization and oppression, the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China marked the beginning of friendlier relations between Mongolia and its southern neighbor. It was during this period of shared ideology that modern trade relationships between Mongolia and China began to develop.
More noteworthy in light of current affairs are Mongolia-North Korea relations. Beginning just 36 days after the establishment of the DPRK, Mongolia has long cultivated a close relationship with North Korea. Each was the second country to establish diplomatic relations with the other, followed by 70 years of relative friendship.5 Although the post-socialist Mongolian government differs from Pyongyang ideologically, diplomatic relations remain strong.
In December 2014 a North Korean plane was rumored to have landed and taken a large number of cows from a province in eastern Mongolia. This rumor was later confirmed by the Mongolian government to be part of an aid agreement with North Korea.6 This and further livestock donations connected with the North Korean policy of creating “economic development zones” have the end goal of North Korean self-sufficiency.7
Historically, thousands of North Korean laborers have worked in Mongolia with the permission of both the North Korean and Mongolian governments. In 2017 Mongolia complied with UN sanctions against North Korea and expelled approximately 1200 North Korean workers, but diplomatic relations between Mongolia and North Korea have remained otherwise unhindered by recent escalations in the region.8
In addition to economic and humanitarian connections, Mongolia’s government is actively seeking a greater role in the resolution of the North Korean conflict. On May 21, 2014 the Mongolian government orchestrated a meeting between North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, Robert Einhorn, and 2 other former U.S. government officials while they were present in Mongolia for the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue.9 Prior to the denuclearization summit held in Singapore last year, Mongolia was considered as a possible location. The Mongolian president at the time, Ts. Elbegdorj, tweeted an invitation to U.S. and North Korean leaders to hold the discussions on neutral Mongolian soil.10 While Ulaanbaatar was not chosen for this summit, the Mongolian government still hopes to establish itself as a mediator in the North Korea peace process.
The secret meeting between Japanese and North Korean intelligence, held in Ulaanbaatar in 2018, gives further support to the case for Mongolia as a mediator in East Asian conflicts.11 Japanese and North Korean intelligence officials met to discuss possible repatriation of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the late 20th century. Interestingly enough, Mongolia has been the site of previous negotiations involving the abductees, including the 2014 reunion of an abductee’s daughter with her Japanese grandparents.12
Mongolia’s newly-elected president has invited North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un to make a state visit to Ulaanbaatar.13 While no date was specified, the invitation remains open. Such a visit would bring a significant advantage to Mongolia’s bid to host future peace talks involving North Korea and would greatly increase Mongolian relevance in world affairs. This being the case, the Mongolian government is likely to continue using its strong relationships with all sides of the Korean conflict in order to advance its own political standing.
Should Mongolia prove successful in establishing itself as a mediator in the North Korean conflict, it could find itself once again on the path to prominence. The prevalence of small nations in current international affairs is evidence that size is no longer a major limiting factor of a nation’s influence. Small nations such as Israel, Palestine, North Korea, and Syria feature prominently on the news almost daily. Increased access to information is making it more difficult for superpowers to discreetly control and manage smaller countries. After years of being disregarded or forgotten, Mongolia may be able to turn its unique relationship with North Korea into a stepping-stone to renewed greatness. Whether or not Mongolia will be successful in taking that path remains to be seen, but the evidence suggests that this is the end goal.
1. Kaplan, Fred, “Bolton of Mongolia,” Slate. July 1, 2019.
2. “Д.Цогтбаатар Жон Болтоныг хүлээн авч уулзав,” News.mn, July 1, 2019.
3. Schmidt, Scott,“30 nations arrive in Mongolia for peacekeeping exercise,”DVIDS, June 10, 2019.
4. “Mongolia Imports,” Trading Economics, May 2019.
5. Баабар, “Монгол-Хойд Солонгосын харилцаа сүүлийн гучин жилд,” Baabar, September 18, 2017.
6. М.Өнөржаргал, “Л.Пүрэвсүрэн: Хойд Солонгос руу 104 үхэр ачиж явуулсан,” Sonin.mn, January 9, 2015.
7. “Provincial Economic Development Zones
Are to Be Set Up,” Naenara, November 22, 2013.
8.“1,200 North Korean workers to leave Mongolia as UN sanctions bite,” South China Morning Post, December 3, 2017.
9. Campi, Alicia,“How North Korea-Mongolia Relations Have Jump-Started the Korean Peninsula Peace Process,” East-West Center, February 20, 2019.
10. Dierkes, Julian and Mendee Jargalsaikhan, “8 Reasons Why Mongolia’s Capital Ulaanbaatar Might Be The Place for a Trump-Kim Summit,” The Diplomat, March 10, 2018.
11. “Japan and North Korea intelligence officials held secret meeting in Mongolia in October,” The Japan Times, October 19, 2018.
12. “Elderly Japanese couple meet family of daughter kidnapped by N Korea,” The Telegraph, March 17, 2014.
13. “Mongolia invites North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit capital,” South China Morning Post, October 16, 2018.