In strictly objective terms, Mongolia is far from a major global player. Its population of about 3.3 million is roughly similar to Puerto Rico. Its annual gross domestic product in 2021 was just over US$15 billion, around 130th among all countries and territories.
Yet the vast, landlocked nation is also rich in natural resources and has positioned itself as a neutral party in regional disputes, two things that have not escaped the notice of South Korea in recent years.
Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1990, South Korea and Mongolia elevated their ties to a “comprehensive partnership” in 2011 and then to a “strategic partnership” in 2021. Now under the Yoon administration, the two countries have the potential to deepen cooperation in a range of areas ranging from technology and tourism to the environment.
These efforts could face hurdles due to Mongolian laws and other factors that have made Korean investors wary of doing business in the country in the past. But at least diplomatically, Mongolia appears eager to play a mediating role on Korean Peninsula issues.
Former President Moon Jae-in saw Mongolia as a key partner in his New Northern Policy, which aimed at improving strategic ties with northern countries. The first formal meeting under Moon came in Jan. 2018, when he met then-Mongolian Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh. The two sides discussed ways to increase cooperation, while Ukhnaagiin also offered his full support to Moon’s peace-driven agenda with North Korea.
In 2020, South Korean finance minister Hong Nam-ki expressed the government’s desire to further economic cooperation with northern countries, including Mongolia. That year also marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. At the time, South Korea’s Ambassador to Ulaanbaatar Lee Yeo-hong lamented that high-level visits would have to be postponed due to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the countries’ leaders were able to meet again last year and followed through with their plans from 2018 to elevate bilateral ties, upgrading their relationship to a “strategic partnership” and laying out multiple areas for further cooperation.
During their virtual summit, the two leaders agreed to deepen and expand cooperation in many fields, ranging from politics and the economy to science, technology, health and tourism. Moon also particularly emphasized the potential for cooperation between the two nations in eco-friendly industries such as green energy.
Overall, the Moon administration strengthened relations with Mongolia and laid important groundwork for further cooperation between the two nations.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has only been in office for a few months, but his administration has already taken steps to further strengthen South Korea’s partnership with Mongolia.
Last month, Park Jin became the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Ulaanbaatar since 2014. He indicated that Seoul’s interest in Mongolia is due at least in part to its rich abundance of natural resources, something which has been in high demand ever since the war in Ukraine.
“We would like to deepen cooperation with Mongolia, the world’s 10th resource-richest nation, for stabilizing and diversifying supply chains,” Park said.
Mongolia also seems interested in what South Korea has to offer. Mongolia’s foreign minister Batmunkh Battsetseg said the two sides discussed ways to achieve synergy between Mongolia’s natural resources and South Korea’s advanced technologies.
As a result of their talks, the two sides agreed to launch an institute “at an early date” to enhance cooperation on rare earth metals. Mongolia would offer land and South Korea would be using its official development assistance funds for the project.
Park also reportedly visited the Mongolian president and delivered a handwritten letter from president Yoon, expressing his desire “to further develop the strategic partnership” between the two nations.
FRIENDS WITH NORTH AND SOUTH
One of the key ways Mongolia can help South Korea politically is in relation to North Korea. Mongolia is one of only a few countries that maintains friendly relations with both North and South Korea, as well as with China, Russia and the U.S. This rare position could prove to be a great help in future diplomatic engagement with the DPRK.
Ulaanbaatar’s relations with Pyongyang go back much further than its more recent friendship with the South. During the Korean War, for instance, the Mongolian ambassador in North Korea was the only foreign ambassador who refused to leave the capital in a show of solidarity.
Over the years, Mongolia has tried to use its position as a “neutral” country in the region to promote multilateral diplomacy. In 2013, for example, the government launched the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue Initiative on Northeast Asian Security, which established itself as a regular venue for track one and two diplomacy from 2014 to 2019, restarting earlier this year after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
According to the Mongolian foreign ministry, the ultimate goal of the initiative is to “defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula and help promote confidence building and peacemaking in Northeast Asia.”
Some analysts have suggested Ulaanbaatar could serve as the “Geneva or Helsinki of the East.” Mongolia has also declared itself a “nuclear-weapon-free zone,” a status recognized at the U.N. level and a potential boon to multilateral diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Ulaanbaatar also tried to play an active role in the peace process under former President Moon Jae-in: Mongolia’s president offered to host a summit for Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in the country, which he called “the most suitable, neutral territory.”
Besides cooperation with the two Koreas, Mongolia also assisted Tokyo with the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals, organizing a reunion between the parents of the abductee Megumi Yokota and their granddaughter who lives in the DPRK.
While opportunities for cooperation, hurdles remain to South Korea and Mongolia developing further ties.
For one, Mongolia’s government has revised and amended laws and regulations that have negatively impacted foreign companies conducting business in the country, according to a Korea Economic Institute of America report, while corruption has also been an issue.
Moreover, costly logistics due to a lack of infrastructure, harsh weather especially in winter, poor working conditions and structural vulnerability in the banking sector are also concerns for Korean businesses, the report found.
Still, the two countries appear committed to improving their bilateral relationship and expanding cooperation.
Mongolia appears to be retrying its hand at playing the role of inter-Korean mediator. After hosting the U.N. secretary-general in early August and less than two weeks after South Korea’s foreign minister left the country, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh reportedly invited Kim Jong Un to visit the country.
According to KCNA, Khurelsukh suggested Kim come “at a comfortable time” once the COVID-19 pandemic situation is “resolved,” adding that he would be interested in visiting Pyongyang as well.
Even though diplomacy with Pyongyang remains at a standstill, Seoul could benefit from keeping Ulaanbaatar close in case an opportunity for renewed engagement with North Korea emerges.
Until then, South Korea and Mongolia will look to strengthen cooperation in natural resources, energy and technology. With global uncertainty and tension high due to the war in Ukraine and U.S.-China competition, neutral partners such as Ulaanbaatar will only become more important to Seoul.