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.