Elevate Ulaanbaatar Dialogue


By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Mongolia is in a good position to contribute to renewed dialogue with North Korea in order to avert confrontations and, in the long run, lead to more constructive interactions. In an eventful Spring 2018 and with the emotional footage from the Interkorean Summit in mind, an upgraded Ulaanbaatar Dialogue in June could make an important contribution to international dialogue to enhance Mongolia’s steadfast efforts of promoting itself as a Northaast Asian ‘Helsinki’ – ultimately aiming to get rid of its regionless fate.

The North Korea Challenge

The DPRK remains a significant challenge to the emergence of Northeast Asia as an economic region of intensified exchanges that capitalize on geographic proximity, an uneven distribution of natural resources, and, in Mongolia’s case, the challenges that come with landlocked status.

For Mongolia in particular, the challenges that arise are a) threats to peace, b) challenges to its economic integration with Northeast Asia.

Regional Peace as an Aspiration

Mongolia has a very direct stake in the uncomfortable stalemate that exists on the Korean peninsula because of the large community of Mongolians who live and work in the region outside of Mongolia itself, especially in South Korea, but also in Japan and China. Any military conflict would directly impact these Mongolians. Mongolia would also be directly impacted by threats to its transportation routes, especially all rail and plane traffic that moves to the South and East, i.e. to Beijing, Seoul, Narita, and beyond. In the catastrophic event of any kind of nuclear confrontation, Mongolia would obviously suffer as much as the rest of the world.

Northeast Asia as an Economic Region

Mongolia remains an isolated economy and neglected actor despite its attempts of integrating into the regional and global economy. Tensions on the Korean peninsula create pressure for Mongolia to take a side in this conflict and to derail all, even modest, steps of reaching out beyond Chinese and Russian markets. Currently, Mongolia has a free trade agreement with Japan, is deepening economic ties with South Korea, securing favourable deals to use Chinese ports for its trade with East Asian economies, and maintaining low-scale economic interactions with North Korea. Mongolia has devoted steadfast diplomatic efforts and resources in a newly active economic diplomacy over the past several years.

Current Events

The Spring of 2018 has seen a series of events that make this a moment for action. After the first year of the Trump presidency had led to an escalation of name-calling, sabre-rattling, and missile tests, the Olympic Truce suddenly seems to have opened a window to a new kind of engagement of the DPRK. Now the world is waiting for the inter-Korean summit, possibly including a peace declaration if not treaty, and after that, some kind of meeting between Trump and Kim, followed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in June where a trilateral summit between Pres. Battulga, Putin and Xi has been announced already.

If any of these meetings go well at all, they are likely to lead to further engagement and further meetings.

Mongolia’s Role

Mongolia provides a neutral atmosphere because it does not have any direct interests in the process, except for providing the good offices and proximate neutral ground. Mongolia maintains friendly relations with all parties and has remained outside of any multilateral mechanisms to resolve the Korean conflicts.  In a nutshell – Mongolia is the most neutral, friendly country in Northeast Asia.

Beyond direct involvement in hosting a Kim-Trump meeting in Ulaanbaatar, any kind of follow-on meetings and discussions may be of even greater significance to the region and a reengagement of the DPRK. One existing forum for such meetings is the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue.

Ulaanbaatar Dialogue

Mongolia has had a long-lasting desire to reach out to Asian countries, but its desire was constrained due to the Cold War ideological divide, Sino-Soviet rifts, and, of course, lack of resources to maintain such efforts.

As the Mongolian economy grew during the commodity boom, Mongolia began to host international events:

In April 2008, Mongolia’s Institute of Strategic Studies organized the “Present and future Security Environment in North-East and Central Asia: Ulaanbaatar — New Helsinki” international conference in cooperation with the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies.

Building on these efforts, on 29 April, 2013, at the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies, held in Ulaanbaatar, President Ts.Elbegdorj formally initiated the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security.”

Since then the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue has been held annually as a track 1.5 (meaning that some governments officials have participated, and some independent voices, especially academics as well) forum for discussion.

The most exciting Ulaanbaatar Dialogue meeting occurred in 2017 when the Deputy Foreign Minister of North Korea participated and held bilateral meetings with some of the other governments represented, including Canada and Japan.


  1. Given the moderate success of past Ulaanbaatar Dialogue meetings, Pres. Battulga should renew the presidential commitment of his predecessor, Ts Elbegdorj, immediately to integrate planning for any meetings between North Korea and other countries into an accelerating Spring schedule.
  2. Whether the Institute for Strategic Studies is tasked again, or whether the organizational role is passed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dialogue should be planned in an upgraded way with a series of substantive discussions and the involvement of Pres. Battulga and FM Tsogbaatar.
  3. The Mongolian government should approach international donor organizations and governments who have contributed funding in the past to assemble a package of funding making the participation of North Koreans and of academics and civil society leaders from other countries possible.
  4. The Mongolian government should make a concerted effort to inform parties to tension on the Korean peninsula and interested third neighbours about the Dialogue and to solicit their participation.

P.S.: Sharing Our Opinions

While we are opinionated, we generally focus on analyses in our blog posts. Here, we are explicitly offering an opinion and recommendations and have therefore marked the post as such.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Canada, China, Germany, International Relations, Japan, Mongolia and ..., North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, United States and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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