Pursuing a friendly relationship with North Korea is part of Ulaanbaatar’s policy of good neighborliness in its extended region. by EurasiaNet 5 September 2007
There is little that strikes one as extraordinary about Kim Jong-suk kindergarten in Ulaanbaatar. In the midst of a makeover during the summer holiday, the school looks very similar to others in Mongolia’s capital. That is, until one considers its name: Kim Jong-suk was the mother of North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.
Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the memory of the North Korean matriarch, where her birthday is celebrated each December. North Korea has also provided funding to the kindergarten on occasion, building a playground in the late 1990s. In addition, teacher exchanges between the two countries are ongoing. Yet the school is no bastion of Communist ideology; it espouses Western methods of education and is fully integrated into Mongolia’s public school system.
The strange juxtaposition does not end at the school’s doors. Mongolia, which long ago traded in its Communist credentials for membership in the club of Western democracies, has cultivated warm relations with that last outpost of Stalinism, North Korea. Experts say shared historical and ethnic ties, plus a sober injection of realpolitik, keep the unlikely pair close.
"They are our brothers," said Tsogtsaikhan Gombo, a former adviser to the Mongolian prime minister and head of a local think tank. Koreans and Mongolians are very close ethnically, he said, noting that children of both nations are born with an unusual blue spot at the base of their spine, which later fades. As the nearest Soviet satellite, Mongolia also adopted orphans from the North during the Korean War in the early 1950s.
Kim Yong-Nam. Photo: Mongolia Web
Although links with South Korea took priority once Mongolia shifted to a market system, a July visit by Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s second-in-command, has sparked talk of a new era of cooperation. After the North’s recent moves to defuse its confrontation with the West over nuclear weapons, some Mongolians even suggest their country could help draw the reclusive North Korean leadership out of isolation.
"In this region, only Mongolia has good relations with both North and South [Korea]," said Bat-Erdeniin Batbayar, a historian and former finance minister who goes by the name Baabar. "That is a fact, and it’s a factor," he continued, saying Mongolia could be a "mediator" in a region where no one else can claim a neutral stance. "We survived the same system, although it was much softer," he added.
Pursuing a friendly relationship with North Korea is part of a broader Mongolian effort to stay on good terms with everyone in its extended region. The country is sandwiched between two giants – China and Russia – who have taken turns dominating their smaller, sparsely populated neighbor.
"If you combine Russia and China, you have a big power," said Sodovjamtsyn Khurelbaatar, director general of the Asian Department at the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and nominee to be the next ambassador to Pyongyang. "We feel we need a third party to balance [them]. We call this our third neighbor policy," he explained.
"We need to find our voice in Northeast Asia," Khurelbaatar continued, outlining a vision of Mongolia as part of a peaceful and prosperous region. That plan could be marred by political confrontation connected with the nuclear question, he said, and thus Mongolia had been doing what it could to encourage a solution.
A NEIGHBOR, NOT A MODEL
Mongolia is not a member of the six-party talks aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff, which bring together the two Koreas, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. However, Khurelbaatar said, Ulaanbaatar has proposed that two of five working group meetings scheduled as part of the negotiations process – one on peace and security in Northeast Asia, the other dedicated to normalizing Japanese–North Korean relations – take place in Mongolia.
Economically as well, Mongolia is staking out a role as a bridge between North Korea and its more prosperous neighbors. Mongolia’s economic ties with South Korea are far more developed, with restaurants, shops, and other South Korean businesses scattered throughout Ulaanbaatar. In addition, an estimated 20,000 Mongolian migrants work in the South.
But economic relations with the North, which to date have been characterized mostly by symbolic Mongolian food aid to Pyongyang, are set to change. President Nambaryn Enkhbayar and Kim Yong-nam discussed plans to bring in North Korean laborers to work in the Mongolian agriculture and construction sectors, Tsogtsaikhan said.
Ragchaagiin Badamdamdin, a member of the Mongolian parliament and chairman of its Mongolia–North Korea group, said his country was eager to import North Korean workers as a potential alternative to Chinese labor. He even proposed that South Korean investors might be willing to use northern labor in Mongolia, an economic partnership that would be far more politically sensitive were it to take place on the Korean peninsula itself.
Ultimately, however, Pyongyang was not looking to Mongolia as a model, said Sergey Radchenko, a visiting professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. "North Korea wants to transition very gradually to a Chinese model, retaining party control," he said, not launch a swift transformation into a democratic system.
Baabar agreed that Mongolia will play at best a supporting part if and when North Korea chooses to end its isolation. "Because Mongolia is a small country and doesn’t share a border with North Korea, it cannot play a major role," he said.
However, Baabar added, North Korea was seeking a "soft landing," and it might welcome efforts by an old friend like Mongolia to prepare the runway. "They want to change, [and] every change is a danger for them," he said. "But they’re looking for some way out."