- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mongolia has offered to mediate between the United States and North Korea because of its good ties with both countries, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed interest, Mongolian Foreign Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold said.

Mr. Batbold told The Washington Times during a visit to Washington this week that his country could arrange and host a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials to discuss any issues they want.

Among the areas of top concern: North Korea’s nuclear program and its sentencing of two American reporters arrested on or near the China-North Korea border to 12 years of hard labor.

“Mongolia has kept very close ties with North Korea” since Mongolia was a communist state during the Cold War, the minister said. “We have organized meetings between North Korea and Japan and would be happy to continue in that direction.”

He said he discussed the idea with Mrs. Clinton during their meeting at the State Department on Tuesday and “she was quite interested” in it.

“We’d like to keep this channel warm and to make contributions to this process,” he said. “We would be in a position to provide the contact and avenue for meetings.”

State Department officials declined to comment on a mediating role for Mongolia with North Korea, but said Mrs. Clinton expressed appreciation for Mongolia’s troop contributions to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are very committed to supporting the government and people of Mongolia as they seek assistance to develop, as they continue their democratization, and as they reach out to the rest of the world,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mongolia, a country slightly larger than Alaska with fewer than 3 million people, is sandwiched between China and Russia. On June 18, its first non- communist president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, takes office after democratic elections in May. A former prime minister, he is also Mongolia’s first president to receive a Western education: at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Mongolia strives to maintain good relations with its two powerful neighbors, but it also wants to be friendly with Washington and benefit from U.S. foreign aid.

Mr. Batbold said the Obama administration could soon approve tens of millions of dollars of aid to his country to help it deal with the effects of the global recession. He also wants the U.S. to contribute to a program for Mongolian students to study in the U.S. to complement the Fulbright scholarships.

When it comes to sensitive issues with China and Russia, such as democracy and human rights, Mongolia walks a very fine line, the minister said.

“They understand that Mongolia is a free country” and can invite the Dalai Lama over Beijing’s objections, although those visits are private and formal meetings with government officials do not take place, Mr. Batbold said.

At the same time, Mongolia does not address China’s political practices, many of which have been criticized by the West, and instead “focuses on trade and economic relations,” he said.

There are also issues that are apparent taboos with North Korea, such as refugees from the Stalinist state who flee to Mongolia via China. Those numbers have reached several hundred over the last several years, but the matter “has not been discussed” with Pyongyang, Mr. Batbold said.

He added that no refugees have been deported back to the North, because “as a democratic country, we respect their rights.” Many have been allowed to go to South Korea, if they wish so, through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, he said.

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