What Do North Korea And Mongolia Have In Common?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What Do North Korea And Mongolia Have In Common?


The relationship between North Korea and Mongolia does not usually make headlines, but Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj’s visit to the reclusive state this visit this week has brought this oft-overlooked East Asian bilateral relationship to the forefront. The visit also marks the very first meeting between a foreign head of state and Kim Jong-Un since his rise to power in 2011.

Elbegdorj’s objectives during the visit are slightly unusual. The Wall Street Journal reports that the president "will present his country’s history as an example of how to achieve sovereignty and economic development without relying on the use of force.” According to the Mongolian Foreign Ministry, Elbegdorj has considered the possibility of acting as a neutral mediator between the North and the outside world. Nevertheless, his visit demonstrates a closeness to North Korea that could be an asset for Mongolia’s relations with other states.

According to certain experts, Mongolia presents a compelling economic model for North Korea. It thrust itself out of communism and integrated into the global economy via an economic boom propelled largely by mining its wealth of natural resources, including rare-earth metals. North Korea is similarly endowed and could emulate the Mongolian example. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Mongolia’s fledgling resource industry is by far its largest driver of growth, accounting for 85% of investments into Mongolia and 40% of state revenue. Foreign direct investment in this sector propelled Mongolia in 2011 to become the world’s fastest-growing economy, according to World Bank data.”

Although Mongolia has been fairly transparent in its reasons for engaging North Korea, there is considerable disagreement among experts on what the true long-term objective is for the opaque Kim regime. One expert, Andrei Lankov, has suggested that the economic model incentive is “completely unattractive” to the North given that in the Mongolian case it necessitated a democratic revolution and the end of the communist regime. Elbegdorj himself was a visible leader in the pro-democracy movement in the 1990s.

The agenda for this visit will include the issue of North Korean laborers in Mongolia. A previous bilateral agreement allows 5,000 North Korean workers to live and work in Mongolia on a temporary basis. On strategic issues, the two sides may come together to discuss what Charles Armstrong  an expert of politics on the Korean peninsula, has termed "a common concern about domination by larger countries, namely Russia and China, and retaining political independence.”

Mongolia fell into the DPRK’s good graces early on when it became the second country to recognize its sovereignty, after only the Soviet Union. It offered the North material support in the form of livestock during the Korean War. Kim Il-Sung visited Mongolia in 1956 to express his appreciation for Mongolia’s wartime support. He visited again in 1988. The two states signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in 1986.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia transitioned into a market economy while North Korea continued to persist as a reclusive communist state. Mongolia’s transition did not estrange it from the North, but the two encountered a decade of slightly strained relations. During Mongolia’s transition to a market economy, it swung strategically towards South Korea; in the 1990s, its trade with the South rose as its trade with the North dropped significantly.

In 2002, North Korean Foreign Minister Park Nam-Sun made the first high-level visit to Mongolia in 14 years. Kim Yong-Nam, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly in North Korea, made another visit in 2007. Kim was also the one to receive Mongolian President Elbegdorj upon his arrival to North Korea this week.

Ankit Panda is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter @nktpnd.

November 11, 2013 at 07:46

The experts have to understand that the DPRK is kept on the brink of collapse without the final push of regime change. This results in no broken arrows so economic development will only occur via full disarmament. The same is said for Iran temporary limited reversible sanction relief in a temporary deal which will be the final deal for some time, with the bulk and frame work of sanctions staying in place. The sanctions that Congress has held off are basically and can be taken as legislation that is passed but not inacted. On the brink but not pushed over the edge so the regime collapses, no broken arrows. Perhaps one day behavioral change takes place leads to disarmament and economic develop.

November 3, 2013 at 13:23
October 31, 2013 at 16:25

I'm afraid that you know very little about Mongolian politics if you think that "Mongolia is the only one country wants to bring the PEACE in this world."  Mongolians are part of the WAR in Afghanistan with troops on the ground there as we speak.  They were also a part of the WAR in Iraq.  I could go on but I don't want to make you look too stupid, your poor English is already doing that.

October 31, 2013 at 11:01

It is good to see that our President is visiting North Korea and seeking democracy with them. Elbegdorj was one of the core reasons why our country has democracy today and not a single blood was shed during the transition. I think Mongolia and our experience and history would be a great example for North Koreans but i don't think he is there to talk about democracy as it is a dictatorship country. You simply cannot ask Kim Jong Un to give up his power and give freedom to his people but more into a diplomatic relationship, import/export and more importantly our country can be the middle MAN between N/K and the rest of the world. As we were a socialist country back then and having Kim the first visit Ulaanbaatar twice should tell you something about the relationship of Mongolia and N/K.

October 31, 2013 at 08:21

I read that that the North Koreans are used in construction as cheap labor in Mongolia much the same as they used in Siberia to cut trees in taiga. So the North Korean government resorted to selling their workforce. The workers don't get paid, they work for foood and shelter. Their earnings are taken away by their government. So it's basically a slavery on the government level.

October 31, 2013 at 00:23

@Jeremy McQueen ? A Mongolian ?

Btw, where does your big neighbour China stands in your view ? Not that I care !  Just curious.

Whatever, I am happy for Mongolia and North Korea….as for me I would prefer to spend time on US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

October 30, 2013 at 23:01

Jeremy McQueen, the name of a Mongolian?    Then Kublai Khan and Genghis Khan is non-Mongolian then

October 30, 2013 at 22:47

Seriously, how can you prove that you’re mongolian? And what you’re saying is so untrue.

October 30, 2013 at 22:05

I love Mongolians

October 30, 2013 at 13:29

This is good for the U.S., as these two can help to encircle China and Russia.

Jeremy McQueen
October 30, 2013 at 11:25

I as Mongolian, I support Elbegdorj Tsakhia, because he is the one of the valuable members who found democracy in Mongolia. Mongolia is the only one country wants to bring the PEACE in this world. We don't stand by one's side, we stand by all country's side. We all hate the war ! We stand on Russia's side as well as USA's. We are close to the Eurasian any countries. We are close to Australia and Africa. We don't care the religion or race. We all see humans as the human. That's why Mongolia wants to bring the democracy to the North Korea, and cancel that nuclear force. We want to bring the peace to both Korea. Why can't they share the Korean peninsula ? C'Mon, this world belongs to the human, human belongs to this world. We are all human, Mongolia cares all of you. But it is true, society is more close to the South Korea and the USA. Keep calm and love Mongolians.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief