North Korea Turmoil = Mongolian International Relations Role

By Julian Dierkes

Some months ago, I speculated about the implications that a changed foreign policy under U.S. Pres. Trump might have for Mongolia.

I was certainly right about one aspect:

[W]ith Donald Trump becoming U.S.-president, I have to add a fairly random element to any risk assessment that acknowledges the utter unpredictability of the new president.

If anything, foreign policy (to the fortunately limited extent that it is made by the President) has become even more unpredictable than one might have expected. This also holds for areas of U.S. foreign policy that matter to Mongolia.

For example, China. Here, Trump continues to wildly swing his foreign policy bat all over the place. From the early phone conversation with Taiwanese Pres. Tsai, to subsequent cozying up to Chinese Pres. Xi, it is impossible – so far – to take a guess at what random twitches of foreign policy in U.S.-China relations might come next.

The Stickiness of the North Korea Issue

While much presidential foreign policy has been random, on one topic, this has produced more concern, but perhaps also an actual shift in policy, namely North Korea. It does seem like missives from Pres. Trump and those around him suggest somewhat consistently that the days of “strategic patience” are over. Perhaps this is not surprising, as “patience” will probably not emerge as one of  the hallmarks of Pres. Trump’s term in office.

Given the concurrent shift that is signalled by the election of Pres. Moon in South Korea, but also the persistence of North Korean missile tests, it does seem like the DPRK is on Pres. Trump’s mind in a very prominent way. And so, a “particular focus” is reported from the G7 Summit.

And Mongolia?

Of course, Korea (North and South) is of significance to Mongolia. Any notion of a Northeast Asian region includes the Koreas, whether it is the Greater Tumen Initiative, or any other conceptualization of the region. Clearly, South Korea is an important Third Neighbour and commercial partner. Some years ago there were even some tentative attempts to establish commercial relations with North Korea.

But it is Mongolia that may be important to the world in the context of concerns about North Korea.  Mongolia’s links with North Korea remain strong in a unique way around the world.

What the Washington Post’s David Jones wrote about this connection in 2009, still holds today.

the curiously warm relationship between North Korea and Mongolia, an important U.S. aid recipient and perhaps the world’s only democracy that can honestly call North Korea its friend.

Time and again, the Mongolian government has offered its services in brokering contact between the government in Pyongyang and the U.S. Over the years, there have been various meetings of this kind with U.S. or Japanese involvement and the general tenor always seems to be that North Korean participants in such meetings are generally comfortable in Ulaanbaatar which gives such meetings an advantage over attempts to meet in Beijing or Moscow, for example.

If the U.S. administration develops some kind of coherent stance toward the DPRK that is different from previous attempts at engagement, at some point Mongolian offers to host meetings or broker discussions may prove valuable. This could be the case even if the South Korean government under Pres. Moon also chances its stance. Any such shift might even be followed by Japanese PM Abe who could see this as an area for constructive collaboration with the U.S., but also with South Korea, but probably without China.

Discussions could come in formal contexts like the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue that was initiated by still-barely-President Elbegdorj and is set to meet again in June 2017, or through less formal, more direct contacts.

If, on the other hand, the situation becomes more confrontational, North Korean trust and comfort with Mongolian officials could be a lifeline – literally – in the event of some kind of crisis.

As I wrote in the earlier piece, however, given Trumpian volatility, it is not clear that Mongolian policy makers should wish for the attention that a shift in relations with North Korean might bring.

Addendum

Here’s a reaction I received to a tweet about this post:

Trip Edington’s pointer got me thinking about what trajectory US policy toward the DPRK might take and what this could mean for Mongolia.

The US seems to be leaning heavily on allies to cut all ties with Pyongyang. For example, in Berlin – where I am based at the moment -, a quiet scandal has been brewing over some weeks now linked to the hostel that the North Korean embassy runs on its ground in central Berlin. Apparently, the hostel finances embassy operations, but the cause for the scandal seems to be the fact that the embassy has neglected to pay taxes on this enterprise. While this has been going on for some time, the moment to lean on the embassy for theses taxes could be a consequence of the US leaning on the German government to cut ties. This has also been suggested by some German academics.

In the Mongolian context, the US administration might thus well demand that Mongolia sever its relations with North Korea as a strategy of intensified isolation. For the US, this would be unfortunate as it would lose one possible avenue to approach Pyongyang in a way that could produce some kind of dialogue. At the same time, this could be very unfortunate for the Mongolian government as it might be forced into a situation where it has to give up one of its international relations, er, trump cards, so as not to anger the US.

Perhaps this year’s iteration of the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue (as mentioned above) will bring an indication of the direction that US views of the Mongolian-North Korean relationship will take. The Dialogue was originally opposed by the US precisely because it involved North Korean representatives and thus seemed to be a rival or side channel that would undermine the Six Party Talks. This opposition seems to have moderated in the last two years. On the other hand, the Dialogue is closely associated with Pres. Elbegdorj and his foreign policy, so a new Mongolian president might not be so inclined to maintain that forum if there is pressure from the US.

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