Mongolian president’s visit to North Korea aimed at increasing ties
North Korean workers toil in factories and on building sites, kimjongilia flowers bloom at a special exhibition, and a restaurant serves plates of bulgogi as another patriotic song blares from a television. Yet this chilly north Asian capital is not Pyongyang, but Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
An official visit by MongolianPresident Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who was due to arrive in North Korea yesterday as the first head of state to visit since Kim Jong-un took power, will cement a longstanding relationship.
Other countries, particularly China have ties to North Korea, but Mongolia is highly unusual as a democracy enjoying warm relations with both Pyongyang’s authoritarian regime and Seoul government in the South. “The visit of our president will elevate relations to a new stage,” Mongolian Foreign Minister Luvsanvandan Bold said.
Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University and author of Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, said the countries had a shared history that pre-dated the communist period and “a common concern about domination by larger countries, namely Russia and China, and retaining political independence”.
On Mongolia’s side, its ability to engage with North Korea is a potentially important asset in dealing with other, more powerful countries.
“What Mongolia can provide is leverage to improve the situation in the region and pursue the initiative for parties to share dialogue. We see a lot of room to be more active,” the foreign minister said.
Last year Ulan Bator hosted talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.
“Mongolia has done a good job of portraying itself as an honest broker on Korean peninsula issues. It is probably the only country that both North and South Korea can be said to trust,” Armstrong said.
Economic links are becoming as important; one key advantage for the landlocked country is North Korea’s access to the sea.
Earlier this year, Mongolia-listed HB Oil bought a 20 per cent stake in a North Korean state-owned refinery. It plans to supply crude oil to the Sungri refinery, based in the special economic zone at Rason, exporting the products back to Mongolia.
“That has triggered a lot of interest,” said Munkhdul Badral, founder of business research firm Cover Mongolia, who visited Pyongyang with a business delegation last month.