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Mongolia offers U.S. a path to N. Korea

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia | The visit might have gone largely unnoticed if not for a minor traffic accident of the kind that is all too common on the Mongolian capital's overcrowded roadways.

A high-level military delegation from North Korea was on its way to the airport at the end of a three-day annual visit when a young Mongolian, traveling much too fast, veered out of his lane and hit the last two cars in the oncoming motorcade, according to a local press report.

There were no serious injuries, but members of the delegation, including Gen. Pak Je Geyong, North Korea's vice minister of defense, were taken to a hospital for examination, forcing the group to delay its departure by a day. A newspaper said the incident was being investigated by Mongolia's road traffic police.

The visit late last month called attention to the curiously warm relationship between North Korea and Mongolia, an important U.S. aid recipient and perhaps the world's only democracy that can honestly call North Korea its friend. Both U.S. and Mongolian diplomats are looking at that relationship as a possible pathway to reopening U.S. talks with North Korea.

The visit reciprocated a trip by a Mongolian military delegation to Pyongyang a few months earlier - at a time of intense speculation among Western governments about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the extent to which he or the military was responsible for a hardening of that nation's international positions.

Other diplomatic exchanges in recent years have produced a series of agreements, usually reported in a few lines by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), on issues ranging from labor exchanges to public health to marine transport - an unusual issue for landlocked Mongolia.

The mutual visits have continued even though Mongolia has become a gateway for North Korean refugees seeking to make their way to South Korea. Unlike China, Mongolia does not turn over the refugees who reach its borders to North Korean authorities.

The official account of the latest military exchange said simply that the sides had agreed to expand their cooperation in the areas of sports, culture and business. The Mongolians "informed the [North Korean] delegation about security issues in the region" while the Koreans "informed Mongolia" about their longstanding policies of "Juche," or self-reliance, and "Son'gun," meaning military first, according to a Mongolian Defense Ministry release.

Defense Minister Bold Luvsanvandan was not a great deal more forthcoming during an interview at the parliament building in central Ulan Bator, saying only that the sides had discussed "general cooperation issues" and signed "a cooperation agreement between ministers."

Despite their intense curiosity about the inner dealings of North Korea's secretive regime, Western governments are not sure how much might be learned from the regular contacts between Pyongyang and Ulan Bator.

"Who knows what they are saying?" remarked one diplomat based in the Mongolian capital. "But I have the impression that the North Koreans just come up here and repeat their dogma."

Nevertheless, the Mongolians, who embraced free markets and democracy in 1990, see the relationship as a card to be played in their determined effort to develop stronger relationships with the major Western powers - both for economic reasons and as a balance against their immediate neighbors, Russia and China.

"Mongolia's intentions are to be helpful," said U.S. Ambassador Mark Minton, who served from 1995 to 1998 as director of Korean affairs at the State Department. He was deputy ambassador in South Korea from 2003 to 2006.

"It tries to have a correct relationship with every country including North Korea. ... Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world that has proper relations with all the countries that are participants in the six-party talks" on North Korea's nuclear program. Besides North Korea, those countries are the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. Mr. Minton said the Mongolians make it clear that "they would be happy to help in any way they could."

Mongolia has in the past helped facilitate bilateral meetings between North Korea and Japan, and Foreign Minister Batbold Sukhbaatar offered to assist in any attempt to restart the six-party talks during a visit last month to Washington. He also offered to help secure the release of two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed interest.

"As a former socialist country, we have some inside views on the behavior of [countries like North Korea], Mr. Bold explained last week, noting that Mongolia's ties to Pyongyang date from the Korean War, when it provided livestock to the North and took in a number of North Korean war orphans.

"North Korea is very heavily militarized," the defense minister told The Washington Times. "But if you pursue a policy of soft landing, there is ... a much better chance to solve the problems in a productive way."

He added that his country's "relationship and policy to North Korea hasn't changed much, even though" Mongolia has transformed itself into a free-market democracy. "We want to help transform [North Korea] from an authoritarian regime to a democracy and a market economy, but we are still considered a friendly country by North Korea. We could be an actor to let the North Koreans understand the situation."

Mr. Batbold, the foreign minister, added during an interview that Mongolia "would like to continue a policy to engage North Korea, to keep them engaged with our success and changes" to democracy and a market economy. He said his government would like "to make a contribution, to the extent that we can, to normalize relations" between North Korea and the rest of the world.