In 2023, Mongolia and North Korea will mark both the 75th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations and the 35th anniversary of the visit of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to Mongolia.
Amid the pandemic, people’s exchanges and economic and trade relations were temporarily suspended for three years, but the two sides strengthened their friendly relations and exchanged greetings on the occasion of national traditional festivals every year.
In articles published by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s main state mouthpiece, Mongolia has been mentioned more than 100 times in the past three years. Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa was mentioned nine times, Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh was mentioned eight times, and Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai was mentioned once.
Mongolia-North Korea Relations
In 2018-19, Mongolia caused an unexpected stir by offering to host a summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Ulaanbaatar. Although Mongolia was not selected in the end, the episode reasserted the country’s strategic position in Northeast Asia as one of North Korea’s few trusted partners to also maintain friendly relations with the United States.
Mongolia has had a long-standing relationship with North Korea. It was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognize Pyongyang in 1948. Even Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, visited Mongolia twice.
Notably, Mongolia is the only democracy in the region with relatively close ties to Pyongyang. Despite widespread efforts by Western powers to isolate North Korea, they have encouraged Mongolia to maintain ties as a source of information and communication channels.
Although the Kim-Trump summitry never came to Mongolia, in October 2018, Kitamura Shigeru on the Japanese side and Kim Sung-hye on the North Korean side held a secret meeting in Ulaanbaatar. Topics of discussion, according to sources, were the return of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean intelligence agencies in the 1970s and 1980s and forcibly detained in the country, as well as the possibility of a summit between the leaders of Japan and North Korea.
However, the last visit by a North Korean official was in December 2018, when then-Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Ulaanbaatar. Since then, key officials have not exchanged visits.
Even Mongolia’s ambassador to North Korea has not yet been able to enter the country. Luvsantseren Erdeneddavaa received his credentials on October 1, 2021, but so far he has not been able to visit Pyongyang and perform his duties due to border restrictions in North Korea.
A Meeting of Female Foreign Ministers in Ulaanbaatar
In late February of this year, Battsetseg, the Mongolian foreign minister, invited about 40 female foreign ministers to attend a meeting in Ulaanbaatar from June 29-30. In early April, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui was also invited. North Korea has yet to respond to whether Choe will attend the meeting, according to people familiar with the matter.
The meeting will celebrate the growing role of women in Mongolia’s foreign policy circles. In 1998, Mongolia appointed a woman as foreign minister for the first time. Since then, Mongolia has had three female foreign ministers, including Battsetseg. In 2001, Mongolia appointed its first female ambassador and sent her to Belgium, which has become an important hub for Mongolia’s multilateral diplomatic relations in Europe.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the Conference of Female Foreign Ministers began to be organized as a more formal meeting. In September 2018, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, organized the world’s first meeting of female foreign ministers in Montreal, attended by representatives from 17 countries. “Our society faces many political, economic and social challenges, and women play an important role in addressing them,” Freeland said in her opening statement. Mongolia wants to replicate that meeting by bringing together female foreign ministers from around the world – potentially reinvigorating Mongolia-North Korea relations as a byproduct.
Choe became North Korea’s first female foreign minister on June 11, 2022. In 2017, South Korea had appointed its first female foreign minister, Kang Kyung-hwa. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have wanted to keep up appearances on gender equality, so he picked his country’s first female foreign minister: Choe, who is recognized as a top diplomat by North Korea’s political elites.
Choe is the daughter of former North Korean Prime Minister Choe Yong Rim. Fluent in English and Chinese, she previously served as the deputy foreign minister, translator and chief representative at multilateral meetings on the Pyongyang nuclear issue.
North Korea has not yet responded to the invitation, but the timing may prove to be auspicious. North Korea attaches great importance to anniversaries, and the 2023 Female Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Ulaanbaatar is scheduled to take place on June 29-30 – around the same time of year as Kim Il Sung’s two visits to Mongolia. The founder of North Korea visited Mongolia from June 16 to 18 in 1956, and again from June 25 to July 1 in 1988. Choe may find a trip to Mongolia more compelling given that the timing also coincides with the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s last visit to Mongolia.
Future Outlook on Relations
At the end of March 2023, the new Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Wang Yajun, was able to take up his post in Pyongyang. Around the same time, Pyongyang agreed to rotate the staff of the Russian embassy in North Korea. This could be the beginning of the gradual entry of staff from international organizations into the country. In the near future, Mongolia’s own ambassador to North Korea, as well as other diplomats and representatives of international organizations, might be able to enter North Korea and resume cooperation with the country as it reopens its borders following the pandemic.
And just in time: October 15, 2023, marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and North Korea. It’s an important opportunity to exchange visits and advance relations after the long interregnum of the pandemic. Restoring traditional friendly Mongolia-North Korea relations – covering trade as well as economic, educational, cultural, and humanitarian exchanges – without violating U.N. Security Council resolutions may be one of the important issues to be resolved on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
One avenue for cooperation would be to provide scholarships to North Korean students. Every year, more than 400 students from North Korea receive various scholarships in China. According to reports, more than 5,000 students are studying in China. With this in mind, Mongolia could accept 100-200 North Korean students per year and 500-1,000 students in five to 10 years to learn agriculture, engineering, Mongolian, and foreign languages.