President Trump says there are five locations being considered for his anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. There are slightly surreal possibilities: Trump might go to Pyongyang, or Kim could come to the United States — perhaps even skip Washington and head to Florida's Mar-a-Lago or New York's Trump Tower.
In reality, it is unlikely either the American or North Korean side would be willing to allow the other side to play host. Instead, it seems probable that the two countries will try to find neutral ground. This might be somewhere symbolic, like the Korean demilitarized zone's “truce village” of Panmunjom or a boat in international waters.
Alternatively, they could turn to a third country that has good relations with both Washington and Pyongyang. And here, one of the most interesting possibilities can be found: Could Trump and Kim meet in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar?
Mongolia is certainly not the first country that people think of when they consider major international diplomatic events. A landlocked country with a population of 3 million, it's still probably best known internationally for Genghis Khan, cashmere, and its status as the most sparsely populated country on Earth.
Indeed, at first glance many other third parties, whether they be big powers, like Russia or China, or smaller nations that have previously offered neutral ground for diplomacy, like Sweden or Switzerland, may seem like more obvious choices.
But Mongolian leaders were quick to present themselves as an option for talks when Trump announced them in early March. Former Mongolian president Elbegdorj Tsakhiagiin suggested that his country was the most “suitable, neutral territory.” Enkhbold Zandaakhuu, chief of staff to Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga, later met the North Korean ambassador and the U.S. envoy separately to discuss the idea.
Some experts in Mongolia have pushed the idea too, with Julian Dierkes, a sociologist and expert on the country at the University of British Columbia, coming up with a catchy nickname for the proposed event: the “Steppe Summit.” Though Ulaanbaatar officials are keeping quiet at the moment, one Mongolian scholar who has been closely watching Northeast Asian affairs said that the possibility was still open (the scholar spoke on the condition of anonymity because of involvement in talks surrounding a possible summit).
There are practical reasons for a summit in Mongolia. The first is simple: location. South Korea, China and Russia are all neighbors to North Korea, but there are considerable political reasons that both the United States and North Korea may not want them to host. “We are the closest and most neutral capital,” the scholar said.
Traveling farther afield to somewhere like Europe or even somewhere far closer in Southeast Asia could present a different problem: Though Kim does not appear to be afraid of flying, as his father was, North Korea's Soviet-era fleet of aircraft may not be up for the journey. Kim could hitch a ride somewhere with another nation, but he may well not want to. As Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told The Washington Post's David Nakamura: “It would be embarrassing.”
The other transit option, of course, is North Korea's famous armored green train. Kim recently used this train — a favorite of his father and grandfather — to visit Beijing, probably traveling through the Chinese cities of Dandong and Shenyang on his way to the capital. It enables him to travel in luxurious but secure style.
Here Mongolia is at a real advantage. There are train lines that run through China or, alternatively, Russia that can reach Ulaanbaatar. If Kim does choose to travel by train, there may be no better option.
The broader geopolitical picture is important. Ulaanbaatar has history with Pyongyang; notably, hundreds of children evacuated to Mongolia during the Korean War. Mongolia was also the second nation to recognize North Korea. They were allies during the Cold War, when both were under Communist governments, and both Kim's father and grandfather have visited Mongolia.
After the Cold War ended, relations became a little more difficult — especially after Mongolia recognized South Korea in 1990 — but generally they kept a cordial relationship. Even though recent U.N. sanctions have hit that relationship, there's still a link: Mongolia's foreign minister, Tsogtbaatar Damdin, visited Pyongyang two months ago.
At the same time, Mongolia has good relations with the United States. Since the two nations established relations in 1988, the United States has offered aid and other support to a country long dominated by its neighbors. When John F. Kerry was secretary of state, he visited in 2016 and hailed the country as an “oasis of democracy” between its two neighbors, China and Russia.
Hosting such a high-profile event like the Trump-Kim summit would align with Mongolian foreign policy ambitions. The country has received similar events before — including “track 1.5" events between North Korean officials and Western academics — and there are clearly ambitions to use Mongolia's reputation as a neutral as a benefit.
There are also more practical concerns. It's thought that there are as many as 35,000 Mongolians working in South Korea — the most outside of Mongolia — and any conflict on the peninsula could not only ruin their livelihoods but also, perhaps, take their lives.
And though the United States and Mongolia have a good relationship on paper, there are worries in Ulaanbaatar that they are an afterthought in Washington (there is no U.S. ambassador yet nominated for Mongolia, for example). Hosting a summit is certainly one way to get more attention, especially with Mongolia hoping to find ways to increase trade with the United States in the future.
Are there any problems with the plan? Well, one of its greatest strengths may be its greatest weakness. While it's possible to get to Mongolia from North Korea by train, it isn't easy or quick.
Mendee Jargalsaikhan, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia who has traveled part of the rail route, explained in an email that it could be expected to take 25 hours to reach Beijing from Pyongyang and then 30 hours to Ulaanbaatar — a trip that would also require adapting the train as the tracks run on different gauges in the two countries, a process that would take several hours.
Though China would presumably clear the tracks for Kim, as they did when he visited Beijing in March, his heavily armored train runs slowly, so it may take even longer. Kim could also go via Russia, which uses the same gauge as Mongolia and would mean that the train could be adapted at the North Korean border. However, Mendee said, it would probably be a considerably farther journey. “It would be very long, tiring ride for Kim,” he said, unless Kim and Trump met in Choybalsan, a city of fewer than 40,000 people in the country's east.
With a month or two until the summit is expected to be held, Mongolia doesn't necessarily look like an easy option. It might just be easier than the alternatives, however.
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