President Donald Trump (R) escorts Mongolia's President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, who looks back at reporters, as he arrives at the White House on July 31. Mongolia has played a role in continuing official and less formal dialogue involving North Korea and its neighbors. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Mongolia has been quietly playing a mediating role in North Korea talks, hosting representatives from Pyongyang when they seek informal discussions with counterparts from Japan and South Korea.
The Mongolian foray into hosting North Korea-related bilateral talks has made progress since the launch of informal Track 2 dialogues in 2015, Ambassador Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan said Thursday at a closed-door roundtable hosted by the Global Peace Foundation in Washington.
Enkhsaikhan, now retired, is the chairman of Mongolian NGO Blue Banner. The group, together with the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, a regional network, has been organizing the talks known as the Ulaanbaatar Process to help grease the wheels of dialogue even during times of tension on the Korean Peninsula.
Mongolia may be in a unique position to host North Korea-related meetings at a time when the long abandoned six-party talks on denuclearization, last held in China in 2009, have become a distant memory. Under Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has instead favored one-on-one, high-stakes summits with world leaders.
Dramatic summitry is no substitute for substantive working-level talks, however.
Enkhsaikhan, who said his views are his own, didn't rule out a future U.S.-North Korea summit in Ulaanbaatar. He also told UPI that Washington and Pyongyang will need to lay the groundwork ahead of the summit. Talks collapsed in Hanoi, Vietnam in February because not much was discussed at the expert or ministerial level; all the nuances came from the top.
"Now they're talking about working-group meetings," Enkhsaikhan said. "That's very good. Hopefully they will meet soon."
Mongolian cooperation on sensitive issues has helped countries like Japan to build low-level dialogue on the issue of abducted Japanese citizens. At the meeting on Wednesday, a Japanese academic from a university in Kyoto said Mongolia's mediating role for countries that "lack trust" has enabled Japan to provide financial support to Mongolia so that it could use the funds to invite North Koreans.
The issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons has dogged past U.S. presidents. Mongolia is a traditional partner for North Korea, and their relationship dates back to the Cold War, when the two countries were part of the Soviet bloc.
"We have not changed our attitude toward North Korea," the former diplomat said. "We don't forget friends."
Friendship does not mean Mongolia is not concerned about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction --- a program that has been on Ulaanbaatar's radar since the '90s.
"First it was a 'nuclear program,' now they say it is a 'nuclear weapons program'," Enkhsaikhan said.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and North Korea took divergent paths. Pyongyang maintained isolation and may have secretly started a uranium program in the '90s, while Mongolia pursued democratization and declared itself a nuclear weapon-free zone.
Mongolia's decision to reject weapons was rooted in a historical lesson, according to Enkhsaikhan.
The landlocked Asian republic may have faced an existential threat when rivals China and the Soviet Union were on the brink of a potential nuclear war in 1969. Moscow at the time stored dual-use weapons, including midrange missiles and planes in Mongolia, which could have made Soviet bases in Mongolia a target of Chinese fire.
"A duck is calm when the lake is calm," he said, referring to a Mongolian saying that summarizes how national interests are best served by a stable regional security environment. "That is why Mongolia tries to stay as active as possible."
Enkhsaikhan said he supports a U.S. security assurance for North Korea that comes with a "double assurance" from Russia and China, a guarantee that could help build trust with Pyongyang.
"And no matter how detailed the agreements, they should be ratified by government, meaning parliament," he said.
Mongolia's willingness to host North Korean officials has also served as a barometer for the mood in Pyongyang.
During the closed-door meeting on Wednesday, a former U.S. State Department officer and Mongolian specialist said after talks collapsed in February between President Donald Trump and Kim, North Korea stopped showing up at the dialogues in Ulaanbaatar.
Enkhsaikhan said Mongolia, with its steady ties to both Koreas, supports Korean unification, and that his country is ready to share its experience of democratization with Pyongyang.
"If they are interested, we will tell them" about democratic systems, he said.
The Global Peace Foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.