Some Thoughts about Logistics of a Steppe Summit

By Julian Dierkes

Can Ulaanbaatar and the Mongolian government handle hosting a Trump-Kim meeting? Yes, of course, though it would stretch some resources.

Past Summits

Mongolia involved itself very actively in a number of multilateral organizations and meetings during the Elbegdorj years. The biggest of these events was clearly the Asia-Europe Meeting in 2016.  The summit brought literally dozens of heads of state and government to Mongolia. The summit was much larger than a Trump-Kim meeting would be in terms of the number of delegations who attended, including their airplanes, support staff, etc., but it had none of the underlying tension that a meeting between two volatile leaders prone to name-calling has.

Travel

Pres. Trump would obviously travel by Airforce One which can be accommodated at Chinggis Khaan International. He would also arrive with his limo, probably helicopter, etc. Travel to Asia would allow him to visit allies like Japan or South Korea, and also other countries like China or Russia’s Far East.

For Kim Jong-Un, travel is not quite as easy. His decision to visit Beijing by train suggests that even for shorter distances he prefers the train over planes and this, in fact, is one of the reason, Ulaanbaatar is under consideration.

Train travel for Kim would mean a 2-day trip via Beijing, and a 2-3h stall at the Chinese-Mongolian border to change the undercarriage of his train out for the Russian railroad gauge needed for travel in Mongolia. See what the process looks like:

And notice the colour scheme of the Transsiberian! Already looks like Kim’s train (see this image in a Chosun Ilbo report)!

Presumably, the relative remoteness of the Erlian border means that the wait there can be secured by Chinese security forces working with DPRK security, I imagine.

For the press and other members of the public who do not travel with official delegations, seats on flights to Ulaanbaatar would be in short supply. Direct flights are offered by Aeroflot, Air China, KAL, MIAT, Turkish Airlines. If you don’t mind state airlines of authoritarian states, Air China from Beijing and Turkish from Istanbul might be the most convenient transfers from North America or Europe, respectively. My favourite would always be MIAT.

Visas

[Section added Apr 21 2018]

A discussion on CNN raised the issue of visas necessary for travel to Mongolia as a hurdle to the selection of Ulaanbaatar as a site.

This is a bit of a self-serving issue to raise by journalists, rather than a concern that may be prominent in the DPRK’s preference of possible sites, for example. As fraught as Trump’s relationship is with real journalists, he is concerned about the splash that the meeting will make, one imagines.

Given visa-free travel for Americans, the question does not really arise for the US media. However, a large number of journalists from other countries, including the EU other than Germany, but also South Korea, for example, would require a visa. As a German citizen, I have not needed a visa for travel to Mongolia for some years, but even before then, the process was always relatively easy, other than requiring a visit to the embassy or (honorary) consul. Since most relevant journalists would be based in a capital, that would be a minor inconvenience only.

I could also imagine that if Ulaanbaatar were selected the Mongolian government would at least consider expedited visa processes for accredited journalists.

Of course, the efficiency of any such processes would be weighed against security needs as discussed below.

Hotels

Presumably, the Trump entourage (security, staff, etc.) would be quite large. They might be best housed in Ulaanbaatar’s Shangri-La which offers 290 guest rooms. This is one of the very few hotels in downtown Ulaanbaatar that I have not stayed in, but from coffee in the lobby, I would guess that there is enough gold in the hotel’s design to satisfy Trump’s taste. Of course, the Shangri-la would be a very short drive (especially with all roads closed) to potential meeting sites like Government House, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Ikh Tenger, the president’s palace.

That would leave either the Blue Sky or the Best Western Tuvshin for the DPRK delegation which would be somewhat smaller, one might presume. Both would be equally close to any meeting venue. The Best Western would offer experience with state visits, but would be easily identified as an American brand.

There probably are enough overflow hotel rooms in downtown hotels to accommodate the numerous members of the world’s press corps who would arrive.

One of the challenges in terms of accommodations might be who would pay for hotel rooms for a large DPRK delegation. I am guessing that the DPRK would not want to (possible under UN sanctions?), but the Mongolian government would also not want to get stuck with this tab.

Ideally, of course, a meeting would take place at Maidar Eco-City, in part because Pres. Battulga is also involved in that project. Unfortunately, when I visited the site last June, there was very little happening, making the project seem like a bit of a mirage. Perhaps, a Trump-Kim Ger could be built at the site, like the ASEM Ger for the ASEM summit.

A Summit Ger would also offer attractive symbolism for this meeting. It can be built (and dismantled) quickly, and on the inside of a ger, there is no place to hide, as visitors have to face each other in the round room. Who knows? A summit ger might re-energize the Maidar project and thus provide a blessing to Pres. Battulga. It is also easily reached from the new Ulaanbaatar airport, which could probably be activated for a summit meeting.

Diplomatic Infrastructure

The fact that the DPRK and the US both have an embassy in Ulaanbaatar is one of the factors that recommends the city as a location.

The US embassy is somewhat large, somewhat removed from the downtown area, and a pretty ugly collection of container-like buildings hidden behind somewhat overblown security measures as is the norm with US diplomat missions. But, the embassy has been in place since 1988, so it is well-equipped in terms of connections to and experience with the Mongolian government as well as Ulaanbaatar as a location. Of course, the embassy is somewhat hampered by the absence of an ambassador who has not been nominated by the Trump administration.

The DPRK embassy is much smaller, but equally well-established in historical terms.

All the other “players” in tensions on the Korean peninsula are also represented by embassies in Mongolia.

Traffic

Car traffic in downtown Ulaanbaatar would likely come to a complete standstill during a meeting if it was not banned outright. But that is okay (except for residences who would be massively inconvenienced), as downtown Ulaanbaatar is compact enough to walk most places, especially in May-June when the weather is quite variable (often four seasons in a day), but not very cold.

Security

Not something I know a whole lot about, but the biggest question is probably to what extent the Mongolian security apparatus is able to collaborate with US and DPRK security forces. I have few insights into operational details, but can imagine the process in a general way.

For the US, that should actually be very possible if the military is involved, as there are extensive links between the Mongolian and US military, including joint service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and regular joint exercises like the the Khaan Quest multinational peacekeeping exercise.

But the Mongolian military does not operate domestically. The Mongolian Secret Service would be in charge of providing security for a meeting. It is a department of the General Intelligence Agency. Most likely, some kind of Interagency Group would be created to coordinate different security needs, including paramilitary border troops, as well as the police which would provide the bulk of the manpower for an event. The military might be called upon to provide the communications infrastructure.

There are occasional consultative talks and non-combat exchanges between Mongolia and the DPRK, but these are on a small scale and probably not much of a basis for operational collaboration.

Given the lack of foreign travel by Kim, it is pretty unclear what exactly security for him and his entourage would be expected to look like.

Communications

A major meeting of this sort would obviously require some significant communications infrastructure.

It is unclear to me how much translation a host might be expected to provide. For example, Messrs Kim and Trump would obviously arrive with their own interpretation teams for Korean-English interpretation, but how much more of that translation would be needed? There are many Korean and English-speakers in Mongolia, of course, in part because the largest Mongolian diaspora is in South Korea, but also because of the attractiveness of South Korean higher education. For the same reasons and for a general push towards English, there are many, especially younger, English-speakers in Ulaanbaatar. This availability holds for the general public as well as government officials.

In terms of communications infrastructure for visiting journalists, for example, that is not much of a challenge. Smartphones are in very wide use in Ulaanbaatar, data is widely available via cell phone services and there are numerous restaurants and public venues that offer WiFi.

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