Japan’s Mongolian connection in North Korea

Authors: Julian Dierkes, UBC and Otgonbaatar Byambaa, Waseda

President Ts Elbegdorj of Mongolia became the first head of state to visit North Korea since Kim Jong-un came to power, even though initial reports suggest that the two leaders did not meet.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has staked a great deal of political capital on his commitment to resolve the issue of the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. In this Abe is placing at least a partial bet on mediation by Mongolia. But is the Mongolian government both willing and able to assist in achieving a solution to this long-simmering crisis? The answer to these questions is yes. Serving a mediating role in finding a way to engage North Korea fits squarely into Mongolian foreign policy. Historical and on-going links with the DPRK put Mongolia in a good position to at least gently push or assist in a mediation.

For the past twenty years, Mongolia has pursued a ‘third neighbours’ foreign policy that attempts to cultivate friends beyond China and Russia in order to balance the influence these two powerful neighbours have. This has enabled Mongolia to achieve a visibility in international affairs that belies its status as a landlocked nation with a small population of just 3 million people. Japan has responded to this engagement with significant development aid, and also through some limited investments in Mongolian industrial ventures.

In engaging the US, South Korea and Japan in particular, Mongolia has emphasised its long-standing relations with the DPRK which serve at once as a motivation for assisting Prime Minister Abe in his drive to resolve the abduction issue, as well as giving Mongolia the means to do so. There are several elements that add up to some capacity for the Mongolian government to continue and perhaps extend its engagement with the DPRK.

The first element is historical. Mongolia was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognize the DPRK. This year marks the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the North Korea and Mongolia. During the Korean War, Mongolia dispatched 225,000 heads of cattle, meats, clothing, and wheat in aid to North Korea, and hundreds of North Korean children were evacuated and raised in a special orphan centre in Ulaanbaatar. This has produced a cohort of Mongolian-speakers and North Koreans with fond memories and appreciation of Mongolia.

Mongolia maintained its contacts in North Korea throughout the 1990s, initially largely out of habit, despite the Soviet collapse and Mongolia’s democratic revolution. This would also have been the period when Mongolia-evacuated cadres in North Korea might have been at the height of their influence. For some time in the 2000s the relationship was somewhat threatened by North Korean defectors’ success in fleeing to Mongolia, but that stream seems to have been stopped in recent years. For a short time, North Korea closed its embassy in Ulaanbaatar out of concern over closer relations between the South Korea and Mongolia, but it was re-opened in August 2004.

Mongolia began to recognize the strategic potential in its close relations with the DPRK in the 2000s. This potential has found its expression most noticeably in the hosting of Japan–North Korea talks in September 2007, March and December 2012 as well as repeated offers to host the six-party talks in Ulaanbaatar. The North Korean leadership seems to see Mongolia as enough of a friend to provide some neutral ground for negotiations.

Today, contact between Mongolians and North Koreans is sustained and frequent on an official and less formal basis. There are regular exchanges between the two militaries, but also of doctors, kindergarten staff, sports officials and so on. There are also some North Korean labourers contracted to Mongolian businesses, a matter that has raised human rights concerns in the past.
Looking forward, economic cooperation between North Korea and Mongolia has unrealised potential and can be seen as complementary to each other’s economies. Without access to the sea Mongolia is keenly seeking to develop alternative routes for exporting its natural resources to the world market. Mongolia’s dependency on Russian oil also prompts its glance beyond immediate neighbours. In July, Mongolian oil company HB Oil acquired a 20 per cent stake in the Sungri refinery in the North Korean northeastern free-trade-zone of Rason. Sungri is remotely connected to Mongolia via the Russian railway and has a refining capacity of two million tons a year.

During the Mongolia-DPRK business forum that was held on 30 October in Pyongyang, Elbegdorj emphasised the business opportunities that exist between the two countries. He announced that the two sides have agreed to establish a joint venture company. He hinted at the possibility of regular flights between the two capitals as interactions get more frequent.

A deeper engagement of the DPRK government by the Mongolian leadership would not only be appreciated in Tokyo. All East Asian neighbours seem at a loss on how to approach Kim Jong-un and might therefore be grateful for any opening that might lead to constructive engagement. Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington have backed themselves into a corner where constructive engagement does not seem an immediate possibility. Moscow seems to have largely lost interest, while Beijing at times has seemed tired of North Korean antics.

On the crucial issue of the abductions, however, it is still entirely unclear what solutions the Mongolian leadership might be able to conjure beyond perhaps brokering direct negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang. Still, there are some signs that the Mongolia connection is placed to bolster engagement between Japan and North Korea. The current Mongolian ambassador to Japan, S Khurelbaatar, was previously posted to Pyongyang. The current Japanese ambassador to Mongolia, Takenori Shimizu is on his fourth tour at the embassy in Ulaanbaatar and thus knows Mongolia very well and has excellent contacts in the Mongolian government. There has also been some speculation that Mongolia is moving on the wishes of the Japanese government in a bid on the foreclosed Chongryon (the DPRK-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) headquarter building in Tokyo. In the auction, the highest bid came from a Mongolian company, Avar LLC, but this company seems to be somewhat of a paper tiger.

Mongolia has been receptive to Japanese requests, and President Elbegdorj’s visit to North Korea is very strategic from a Mongolian perspective. The coming weeks will have to show whether the Mongolian government can point to any concrete movement in its discussion with North Korea, but Prime Minister Abe may be right to put some faith in these Mongolian efforts.

Julian Dierkes is associate professor at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Canada. Follow his writings on Mongolia Focus and Twitter.

Otgonbaatar Byambaa is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Waseda University, Japan.