The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue – a “Helsinki” for peace in Northeast Asia?

An annual summit in Mongolia can serve as a platform for dialogue over the Korean Peninsula, in particular in the wake of the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.


“The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue could be for Northeast Asia what the Helsinki process was for Europe, a platform to set foundations for multilateral cooperation on peace and security”, one expert said on the sidelines of this year’s edition of the annual high-level meeting on peace and security.     

Government representatives and scholars from all the countries in Northeast Asia, North America and Western Europe met in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar on 14-15 June to discuss peace and security in Northeast Asia. This was the fifth Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security (UD), organized jointly by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Professor Lee Eun-Jeung (Freie Universität Berlin) and Dr Eric Ballbach (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) from Germany took part. In an interview conducted by Niels Hegewisch, representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Mongolia, they discussed the UD and the current security situation in Northeast Asia, in particular on the Korean Peninsula.


This year's Ulaanbaatar Dialogue took place just three days after the Singapore Summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. What role did the meeting between President Donald Trump and his counterpart Kim Jong-un play? 

Eric Ballbach: The Singapore Summit dwarfed all other issues. That is understandable, as North Korea and its nuclear programme are the most salient security policy issues facing Northeast Asia. That was already the case last year, but this year was characterised by a completely different atmosphere. A year ago we were all anticipating a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea. The representatives of the two countries were posturing towards one another in a belligerent manner in Ulaanbaatar. North Korea underscored that it felt threatened by the US and that this was the reason for its nuclear programme. US representatives portrayed North Korea as the greatest threat to peace in Northeast Asia. This year, however, was marked by a cooperative atmosphere. The meeting in Singapore has eased tensions in the region for the time being. No one wants to disrupt the process of rapprochement at this point in time.



How do you assess the summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore?

Eric Ballbach: The meeting in Singapore was without a doubt historic. Never before has there been a meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean ruler. If anyone had asked me about this possibility a year ago, I would never have conceived of such a meeting being possible. It was Donald Trump's unconventional manner of conducting politics that made the meeting possible. This was an unconventional meeting between two unconventional leaders. However, the results produced by the meeting are not historical. But nor was it to be expected that far-reaching agreements would be signed at the end of this meeting, which lasted only a few hours. In effect, one must say that the summit was above all of a highly symbolic nature.

Lee Eun-Jeung: Much will now depend on what becomes of the very loosely formulated summit declaration at the working level. This will determine how sustainable the summit will be. In East Asian cultures it is important for there to be a positive atmosphere at the leadership level. Then a lot can be achieved at the working level. The final document is merely a declaration of intent to negotiate with each other in the future in a spirit of trust and confidence. But that in itself is already worth a lot.

Eric Ballbach: I agree with that. We have had much more far-ranging, restrictive agreements with North Korea, but these broke down due to a lack of trust and confidence. This was the reason why it was not possible to agree on a verification mechanism for denuclearization in the six-party talks that were broken off in 2008. By first building trust and then negotiating the details, a new approach has now been ventured. The challenge nevertheless remains formidable. North Korea de facto a nuclear power. And before any form of denuclearization takes place, North Korea's relations with the US, South Korea and Japan need to be placed on a normal footing and a regime of peace must be established on the Korean Peninsula. These are colossal tasks in and of themselves. All the parties involved will need a lot of patience and staying power. 

In spite of all the rejoicing over developments on the Korean Peninsula, Trump and Kim did not discuss human rights. What consequences if any does this have to the resolution of the conflict?

Eric Ballbach:  The summit in Singapore would have been the completely wrong venue at which to discuss human rights. This is of course a key issue that definitely needs to be on the agenda in negotiations. But not at an initial brief meeting or in the context of denuclearization. The North Korean leadership will not engage in any debate on human rights until it is certain that it will not be exposed and shamed. The leadership in Pyongyang must believe that they can enter into a dialogue on human rights without facing a multilateral front speculating on a regime change. If we are not prepared to do this, there will be no dialogue on human rights.

Lee Eun-Jeung: We also need to be aware of how human rights issues have been raised with North Korea in the past. This issue has been used in the past by the US and South Korea particularly as a political weapon against North Korea to isolate the country internationally. An actual improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea was only of secondary importance to these countries. We therefore need to start off with a self-critical analysis of how we have carried on this discussion in the past and whether better results may perhaps be achieved by other means. The German experience can be instructive in this regard. In the rapprochement between West Germany and East Germany, the human rights situation was above all improved indirectly: Because East German leaders felt less menaced by West Germany in the rapprochement between the two German states, they became less repressive domestically. This in turn led to greater political freedom in East Germany, ultimately culminating in the peaceful revolution of 1989. The lesson that can be learnt for North Korea is clear: Anyone who wants to improve the human rights situation must first build trust and confidence between governments.

In Western media, North Korea is described as extremely isolated. From a Mongolian perspective one obtains a different impression. Relations between the two countries are traditionally close and there is an intensive exchange between them. What role could Mongolia play in securing peace in the region?

Eric Ballbach: Because Mongolia has no agenda of its own in Northeast Asia, it does not pose a military threat and maintains friendly relations with all the countries in the region. It can therefore serve as a platform for dialogue and encounters. And this goes not only for major summits, but also for the many meetings between government representatives and scholars, which are equally important. This is the only way to provide summit diplomacy a solid footing. The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue is a good example of this.

Lee Eun-Jeung: Mongolia could play a role similar to Finland in the establishment of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. [Launched by the 1975 Helsinki Process, the OSCE is a security-oriented international organization spanning both sides of the then Iron Curtain.] Northeast Asia needs a comparable institution that creates structures fostering and nurturing multilateral cooperation for peace and security. What the Helsinki Process was for Europe, an Ulaanbaatar Process could be for Northeast Asia.


For more information on the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue and the work by FES in Mongolia, visit the country office website and follow their Facebook fan page for daily updates. 

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