Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power” has untapped potential for understanding the power of so-called small states, which can significantly contribute to peace mediation in the global policy arena by marshaling their soft diplomatic power. In this vein, Mongolia’s diplomatic mediation efforts on the Korean Peninsula, facilitated through its multilateral peace activist foreign policy and its cordial relations with all of the parties involved, have the potential to broaden its foreign policy reach in regional affairs.
‘Soft Power’: Bringing Warmth to a Frozen Conflict
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have, in recent years, shaken the precarious stability established by the 1953 Armistice between the two Koreas. The growing tensions on the peninsula evoke power struggles between big powers such as the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, historical adversaries with direct strategic interests in revisiting the Korean conflict. The region remains trapped in the logic of obstinate realpolitik.
Since the early 1990s, major powers have engaged in “hard power” mediation initiatives, employing a primarily carrot-and-stick approach that incorporates elements including financial assistance, humanitarian aid, and economic sanctions. However, these efforts have so far failed to resolve the Korean conflict. This suggests that hard power approaches may not be the best foreign policy solution for frozen conflicts, and they have proven to be especially ineffective in changing the “hearts and minds” of policymakers in conflicting states.
Many observers were surprised when Mongolia quietly revived declining multilateral engagement with North Korea following the gradual breakdown of the Six-Party Talks, which were held intermittently beginning in 2003. Notably, Mongolia’s mediating role has emphasized the significance of small states’ “soft power” in global diplomacy.
In 2014, Mongolia’s then-President Elbegdorj Tsakhia established a new dialogue venue in Ulaanbaatar to facilitate a breakthrough on the Korean issue. The conference type was track two, with diplomats from the Six-Party states invited as well as academics.
The conference aimed to increase trust and confidence among the various parties while decreasing tension and hostility on the Korean peninsula. The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security (UBD), as it is widely known, has aided high-ranking officials in developing mutual understanding and in reestablishing working relations. Social interactions at events and meals, undertaken as part of the UBD initiative, have helped to soften hardline positions on sensitive security issues. The dialog has also included non-security issues such as economics, energy, infrastructure, humanitarian issues, and the inclusion of youth in peacebuilding initiatives.
The number of participants attending the UBD has grown over time, as has its influence. The UBD has now firmly established itself as a stable multilateral security dialogue mechanism in which North Korea has consistently participated.
Mongolia’s Soft-Power Assets
Mongolia is a small state, with an annual GDP of just $13.84 billion, but has a rapidly growing economy. In 1990, it underwent a remarkable political transformation, from communism to holding democratic elections, without reverting to authoritarianism or political backlash, unlike in other emerging Sino-centric Asian countries. Mongolia’s successful sociopolitical transition was not novel. The roots of Mongolian soft power can be traced back to the Great Yassa (Mongol Empire law) and the cosmopolitan Mongolian identity that developed in the Central Asian steppe (c.1280–1360), when nomadic Mongols secured “Pax Mongolica” hegemony over much of Eurasia.
Today, Mongolia is an advanced democracy with a firmly established market economy that has a reputation for diplomatic mediation and peacekeeping operations. Mongolia’s regional peacemaker role may reflect its desire for renewed global prestige.
In recent decades, the art of using soft power has been enshrined in Mongolia’s foreign policy and via its cordial diplomatic relationships. Pursuing a pacifist foreign policy, Mongolia has sought an “open, independent, multi-pillared” foreign policy and is pursuing a “Third Neighbor” policy in global relations, emphasizing the development of diplomatic ties with both the West and East on pragmatic grounds.
Under this concept, Mongolia has enjoyed positive relations with a cluster of advanced democracies and global institutions including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the U.N., the World Trade Organization, and ASEAN, all while maintaining its strategic relations with its two great power neighbors, China and Russia. Furthermore, Mongolia has declared its territory a nuclear-weapon-free zone and has striven to formalize its nuclear-weapon-free status. These efforts have helped establish Mongolia’s reputation as an honest and dependable broker committed to regional nuclear non-proliferation.
Mongolia’s expansion of its mediator profile may not have been achievable without a cordial diplomatic record; its amicable relations with both Koreas have allowed its efforts to mediate as a third-party country to come to fruition. In a rare feat, Mongolia has gained North Korea’s trust. The two countries’ historic ties, dating back to 1948 and based on their shared communist ideology, have remained solid, despite Mongolia’s transition to democratic government and a liberalized economy. Mongolia may serve as a window to the outside world for North Korea, providing an opportunity for economic development by learning from its experience.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1990, Mongolia has also maintained close relations with South Korea. Today, as part of Ulaanbaatar’s Third Neighbor policy, relations with Seoul have evolved into comprehensive partnerships in several fields, including politics, economics, and culture. Politically, the two nations have sought greater diplomatic engagement by hosting an annual ministerial meeting to exchange foreign policy perspectives, including discussions regarding Ulaanbaatar’s support for the Korean Peninsula peace process.
In economic terms, South Korea was Mongolia’s fourth-largest trading partner in 2019, with bilateral trade volume totaling $266 million. Culturally, Mongolia remains one of the top tourist destinations for Koreans, while South Korea is the preferred immigration destination for Mongolians. It hosts the largest proportion of the Mongolian diaspora abroad, amounting to around 48,185 people in 2019, including 7,381 students.
Mongolia’s diplomatic achievements have demonstrated how small states can use soft power to enhance their foreign policy influence. The country has emerged as a key player in Northeast Asia over the last decade by employing soft power via its multilateral peace activist foreign policy and amicable diplomatic relations with key regional actors and powers beyond. Mongolia’s soft diplomatic mediation efforts through the UBD have thawed a frozen conflict, particularly with North Korea, offering a path to peace. Mongolia has quietly worked to revive the Korean Peninsula’s declining security dialogue, fostering regional cooperation among parties and raising its own profile as a foreign policy actor in the process.
This article is based on the findings of a research paper published in The Pacific Review; an international relations journal covering the interactions of the countries of the Asia-Pacific. The Pacific Review has a particular interest in how the region is defined and organized, and covers transnational political, security, military, economic, and cultural exchanges in seeking greater understanding of the region.