“Dialogue is a powerful tool if it leads to cooperation”

Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) – Interview with Damba Ganbat, organizer of the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, on the challenges to peace and security in Northeast Asia, the role of Mongolia and its relationship to North Korea.

Mongolia plays an important role regarding peace and security in Northeast Asia. Landlocked between Russia and China, the country is small in terms of population and military power but influential in terms of diplomacy. Neutral Mongolia acts as an honest broker for peace and security in a region that is prone to conflicts.

This was on display when the 4th Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Peace and Security took place on 15-16 June. Hosted by Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies and supported by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), delegations of researchers, NGOs and government officials from across Northeast Asia, North America and Europe gathered in the Mongolian capital.

On the sidelines of June’s event, the organizer Damba Ganbat met with resident representative of FES Mongolia Niels Hegewisch for an interview on the story behind the Dialogue, the challenges to peace and security in Northeast Asia and the role of Mongolia regarding its neighbours, including North Korea.

There is no lack of initiatives to strengthen security and cooperation in Northeast Asia. What is special about the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue?

Damba Ganbat: Many of these initiatives suffer from their initiator's own agenda or overwhelmingly diverging interests of the participants. Sometimes the initiators even lose interest in their own initiatives. The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue is different. It profits from Mongolia’s special role as a neutral country in Northeast Asia. This provides us with two advantages. Firstly, our interest in solely providing a platform for dialogue is beyond doubt. Secondly, our long-term engagement is secured since the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue is in line with the paramount principle of Mongolia’s foreign policy: to foster peace and security in Northeast Asia through mutual understanding. Accordingly, the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue is continuously gaining in importance. Four years ago, we started on a small scale with researchers and think tanks from Northeast Asia. This year we included government officials from Asia, Europe, and North America.

What are the biggest challenges for peace and security in Northeast Asia?

DG: The complexity of international relations is increasing and the security situation in Northeast Asia is tense. The biggest challenge is to create and strengthen mutual trust. This needs time and continuous efforts. Given this, we consider it a success that we managed to convene delegates from every country in Northeast Asia. It was especially important that a delegation from North Korea accepted our invitation, since the country is in the spotlight of international politics. Just recently additional sanctions were imposed by the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, very rarely do officials from any country meet with their North Korean counterparts. On the contrary, there have been instances when North Korea’s stance on the tensed security situation in Northeast Asia has been ignored by virtually every other country. We don’t believe that this kind of silence is a way forward. Hence our invitation to a North Korean delegation to the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue.

Kim Kwang Hak attended from the Institute for American Studies, a think tank linked to Pyongyang’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He elaborated the North Korean view that the policies of the United States towards North Korea are the biggest security threat in Northeast Asia. He stated that North Korea did not attack any other country in the past and is not planning to do so in the future. According to Kim, North Korea’s missile program’s sole purpose is self-defense. This is an interestingand of course debatablepoint of view. But the importance of the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue was immediately highlighted when delegates from the United States, South Korea, and other countries engaged in a frank but respectful discussion with Kim. I believe that this is how we lay the foundations for sustainable peace and security in Northeast Asia.

How do you build trust between the Northeast Asian nations?

DG: We know from the history of international relations that building trust is a protracted and difficult process. Dialogue is a powerful tool if it leads to cooperation. And there is an enormous potential for cooperation in Northeast Asia to be unlocked. Our region is home to 30 per cent of the world’s population and responsible for roughly 25 per cent of the global GDP. But our shared institutions and multilateral cooperation lags behind. This becomes most visible in the field of energy supply. Economic heavyweights like China, Japan, and South Korea are some of the biggest energy consumers in the world. How to satisfy their thirst for energy in the future is a hot topic. At the same time neighbouring countries like Russia, Mongolia, and even North Korea carry the potential to become major energy suppliers. But until today the full potential of energy cooperation in Northeast Asia has not been realized. At this year’s Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, we brought this topic into focus. Because if we learn to cooperate in other fields it might pave the way for substantial progress in terms of peace and security.

How would you describe Mongolia’s role in Northeast Asia?

DG: Obviously, Mongolia is not a major power. But this creates trust in our neutrality. Mongolia is neither posing a threat to anyone nor is it involved in any bilateral or multilateral conflicts. Our history as a Manchurian colony, Soviet satellite state, and transition country enables us to connect with the specific experiences of countries as different as Russia, China, South Korea and North Korea. As a stable democracy and market economy since 1990 we maintain close relationships with Europe and North America. Accordingly, Mongolia is in a unique position to act as an honest broker for peace and security in Northeast Asia, and Ulaanbaatar is the perfect place for a constructive dialogue between otherwise hostile countries. That is why, besides the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, Mongolia is continuously hosting meetings of parliamentarians, mayors, and researchers from Northeast Asia. We hope that these efforts will ultimately lead to a collective architecture of peace and security in Northeast Asia, comparable to the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation] in Europe. 

You mentioned Mongolia’s ties to North Korea. How would you describe this relationship and what are its origins?

DG: Mongolia’s close ties with North Korea date back to the socialist times. Mongolia was a socialist country for nearly 70 years. During the Korean War Mongolia kept its embassy in Pyongyang open, more than 200 North Korean orphans grew up in Mongolia, and North Korean students attended Mongolian universities. Additionally, Mongolia supported North Korea with livestock, food, clothes, and construction materials. This support continued after the Korean War and the end of the Cold War until today. 

Nowadays citizens of Mongolia travel visa-free to North Korea and North Korean builders are working in Mongolia. In 2013 Mongolia’s president was invited to give a speech at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. It is this combination of a shared socialist history and a continued cooperation that led to the close relationships between Mongolia and North Korea. Thus, North Korean delegations willingly accept invitations to Mongolia and hold in high esteem Mongolia’s efforts to facilitate a dialogue on Northeast Asian peace and security. Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world that can rightfully claim to maintain good relationships with both Koreas and their respective allies. We are committed to make use of this for the good of our region. ###

For more information on the work by FES in Mongolia contact the resident representative Niels Hegewisch info(at)fesmongol.net

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