Roughly a month after the surprise announcement that discussions about a Kim-Trump-summit were taking place, plans remain shrouded in mystery if they exist at all. A recent CNN report suggests that the location of a meeting is one of the aspects under discussion and that Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, remains under consideration. The logic that recommends Ulaanbaatar remains unchanged over the past four weeks, but has been bolstered by events in the meantime.
Through his chief of staff, Mongolian president Kh Battulga communicated his government’s willingness to host a meeting to North Korean and American embassy officials in Ulaanbaatar on March 16. This invitation was widely reported in the local press. However, the Mongolian government has subsequently decided not to promote itself as a mediator publicly. While hosting of an event or its follow-on activities is seen as fitting well with Mongolia’s overall foreign policy, the thinking in Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that the North Korean leadership may be spooked by too much of an attempt to advertise Mongolia as a host.
The next surprise in the process of engaging the DPRK was Chairman Kim’s surprise appearance in China. While this seemed to re-establish China’s involvement in any processes involving Kim, it was also notable for Kim’s arrival in Beijing by train. Beyond the spectacle of journalists live-tweeting from railroad crossings, the choice of train travel to Beijing suggests that either Kim shares his father’s preference for train travel, or that other considerations preclude air travel as a choice, possibly due to security concerns. If Kim is to travel to a meeting by train to any destination other than the DMZ, far-away possibilities like Geneva or Stockholm might be ruled out to the duration of a train trip and the need to cross through the territories of many countries. While Pyongyang to Ulaanbaatar is only a short flight, it is a trip that can be made via China or Russia in roughly two days.
Mongolia’s ambassador to the US, Yo Otgonbayar finally arrived in Washington, DC, after having had his appointment delayed for many months by President Battulga. Just after Kim’s visit to China, on March 28, Otgonbayar presented his credentials to Trump paving the way for direct discussions about Ulaanbaatar as a location for a meeting.
Kim might be planning another train trip, this time to Russia if his Foreign Minister succeeds in confirming a summit with President Putin during his upcoming visit to Moscow on April 10. Following his father’s visit to Ulan Ude and grandfather’s visit to Moscow, Kim might want to make another quick trip to the Russian Far East, possibly Vladivostok, which Putin has promoted as a major international hub.
In the month since the possibility of a Trump-Kim meeting has been floated, few details or concrete elements of planning have emerged. But plans for a meeting have not been abandoned, and some elements may be more likely than others. Among these elements, Ulaanbaatar as a location appears to remain as a distinct possibility.
Dr. Julian Dierkes is an associate professor at the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada where he teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs. He and Mendee blog at http://blogs.ubc.ca.mongolia. Follow him on Twitter @jdierkes. Mendee Jargalsaikhan is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. His dissertation examines the development of Mongolia’s democracy. Follow him @MendeeJ.