The fact that Mongolia and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) have maintained relatively continuous friendly relations with each other since 1948 may surprise some. In fact, there has always been a mutual understanding between the two peoples, which at first sight and from the outside was difficult to understand. But the ‘chemistry’ between them was simply right. On the one hand, this may have had to do with the fact that the same great powers had intervened in the creation of both states, and that in Ulaanbaatar and Pyongyang they saw themselves in a community of destiny. But on the other hand, perhaps there were also deeper ethnogenetic reasons. If there were nevertheless ups and downs in relations between the two in the period up to 1990, this had more to do with the ideological religious war between Moscow and Beijing than with a decline in mutual understanding and trust. After the political turnaround, Mongolia hardly changed its attitude towards North Korea. Even Pyongyang did not measure Mongolia by fundamentally different standards. Both sides created a viable, new legal foundation for their bilateral relations. Mongolia also established diplomatic relations with South Korea. It now seemed to want to transfer the phenomena observed in its relationship with North Korea to its relationship with Seoul. However, it did so only after it had made it clear to South Korea that it was interested in a balance in its relations with North and South Korea and would support the peaceful reunification of the Korean people.

Establishing diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

When the Mongolian People’s Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (henceforth North Korea), which was only founded on 9 September 1948, agreed on 15 October 1948 to establish diplomatic relations, both sides attached particular importance to the event. In both cases, the Soviet Union had been the first state to establish diplomatic relations with them. Although the Republic of China had recognized the independence of (Outer) Mongolia on 5 January 1946, diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level had never been established. North Korea, which had just been founded, was therefore only the second state to recognise Mongolia diplomatically. Conversely, Mongolia had also established diplomatic relations with North Korea as the second state, but at the direct request of Moscow. Both sides opened their embassies in Ulaanbaatar and Pyongyang under the difficult conditions of the Korean War in 1950. 

For the Mongolian leadership at the time, these steps were also a matter of course. The MPR had fought alongside the Soviet Union as an ally in 1939 in the Battle of the Khalkhyn Gol against the Japanese and in 1945 in the battle against the Japanese Guangdong Army. Their leadership therefore felt solidarity with Korea, which was occupied by the Japanese only a few years earlier. Another reason was that the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung came closer to the political orientation of the Soviet Union. Moscow, which was interested in the Korean Peninsula for geostrategic reasons, had instructed the Mongolian leadership to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and to provide North Korea with all possible assistance. A special commission was therefore set up under the leadership of Mongolian Deputy Prime Minister B. Lamjav to organize an aid movement for the Korean people.

The Mongolian government sent J. Sambuu, one of its most senior diplomats, to Pyongyang for the years 1950-1952. Sambuu was no stranger to Mongolia at that time. During the years of Soviet state terror from 1937 to 1946, he had ‘proved himself’ as an extraordinary and authorized envoy of the MPR in Moscow. For his time and for Mongolia, he was not only considered an outstanding diplomat, but also someone who enjoyed Moscow’s absolute trust. He was assisted by J. Sanjmyatav as embassy counsellor and with the commitment to support Prime Minister Marshal Kh. Choibalsan personally in writing on the progress of relations with North Korea.[i] This commitment underlines the great importance of relations with North Korea for the Mongolian Prime Minister. Sambuu was recalled in September 1951 and appointed Deputy Foreign Minister on the instructions of the Council of Ministers.

J. Sambuu was succeeded in 1952 by General S. Ravdan in the office of ambassador. Ravdan also enjoyed the reputation of a reliable guarantor of Moscow. During the years of terror, he had served in the army as a political officer and from 1945-1950 he had led the political administration of the Mongolian People’s Army as a general. Sambuu and Ravdan not only built up relations with North Korea, but also ensured the smooth functioning of Mongolian food aid to North Korea during the war. After all, between 1950 and 1953 alone, Mongolia, which was otherwise economically fragile, supplied 226,236 head of meat, as well as warm clothing, felt boots, wheat, rice, meat, butter and fat in large quantities by rail to North Korea. The fact that Mongolia also accepted 197 orphans (115 boys and 82 girls) and 8 Korean teachers from North Korea for eight years for care and education seemed at the time to be a symbol of the high humanitarian quality of the bilateral relations between the two countries. 

In 1953, the Secretary of the CC of the MPRP, Ch. Surenjav, and Lieutenant General J. Jamyanjav brought aid shipments to Korea. They also visited the North Korean troops at the front. As in World War II in the Soviet Army, the resistant Mongolian horses were used in large numbers as transport animals in the rough terrain.

In 1955 Ulaanbaatar and Pyongyang agreed to establish telephone, telecommunications, and postal relations. The technology came from the Soviet Union and the technical implementation was in the hands of Soviet telecommunications technicians. The lines ran across Soviet territory. The Soviet military saw the advantage of these telecommunications links in the fact that they could ‘pinch China Manchuria by telegraph links.’ From Moscow’s point of view, Mongolian-North Korean relations were thus also characterized from the outset by a military component, which had to do with strategic options against a possibly strengthening China.

First highlights in bilateral relations

In 1956 the first highlights in bilateral relations between Mongolia and North Korea occurred. The North Korean revolutionary leader and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Kim Il Sung provided Mongolia and the Mongolian Chairman of the Council of Ministers Yu. Tsedenbal paid an official visit to North Korea. Both visits made it clear that the relations between the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) were the very basis of state relations and that both sides wanted to extend ‘fraternal cooperation that makes socialism its orientation’. Mongolia and North Korea now regarded each other as ‘brother states’, but were under the political domination of the Soviet Union. Both states agreed to establish economic relations, which they did from 1957 onwards on the basis of protocols on the exchange of goods and payments to be signed annually. Mongolia exported sheep’s wool, horsehair, leather, meat, butter and grain, and imported silk fabrics, fruit, medicines and chemical products. However, Mongolia was to make its mark above all by supplying more meat and helping to develop North Korean agriculture. 

But bilateral relations began to stagnate as early as 1958. Like Mao Zedong in China, Kim Il Sung had purges carried out within the North Korean leadership elite, which eliminated officials who were said to be too close to Moscow (but also Beijing). The personality cult around Kim Il Sung henceforth determined North Korean domestic policy. In Ulaanbaatar, it was viewed with concern that the persons who were the reference point for bilateral relations were gradually being removed from their functions in the North Korean state apparatus. Nonetheless, the Mongolian government, which like North Korea itself was wavering back and forth between Moscow and Beijing during this period, tried to stabilize its relations with North Korea. It sent General B. Dorj as ambassador to Pyongyang. Dorj, who had previously been Minister of the Interior and Minister of the Army and State Security, was considered a political heavyweight. He sought mainly to initiate economic relations. On 29 January 1960, an ‘Agreement on Scientific and Technical Cooperation’ was signed, as a result of which a bilateral government commission was formed soon afterwards. Ambassador Dorj’s efforts were flanked by a state visit in May 1961 by the Chairman of the Presidium of the Grand People’s Assembly, J. Sambuu, who had been the first MPR ambassador to North Korea years earlier. The two parliaments began to ‘communicate’ with each other in this way, as there could hardly be any real parliamentary cooperation. 

The USSR also tried to put relations with North Korea on a more binding basis. When Kim Il-Sung paid an official friendship visit to Moscow in July 1961, both sides concluded a concrete and binding ‘Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance’. The treaty provided for immediate military assistance in the event of an attack on the contracting party by any state or coalition of states. Both sides also undertook ‘not to form any alliance and not to participate in any coalitions, nor to take part in any actions or measures directed against the other party to the treaty’.[ii]Nevertheless, in 1962, the Korean leader Kim Il Sung fully sided with Mao Zedong or China. This deprived Mongolia of the leeway to shape Mongolian-North Korean relations itself and with its own initiative. Moscow tied Mongolia more firmly to itself and even had it accepted into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1961. 

Stagnation in relations

Relations between Mongolia and North Korea began to stagnate. However, at Moscow’s request, Mongolia continued its efforts to reactivate bilateral relations at the party level. After all, according to the understanding at the time, party relations continued to be the key to state relations between socialist countries. For this reason, the Mongolian Foreign Ministry sent D. Sharav, a member of the CC of the MPRP, as ambassador to Pyongyang from 1963 to 1967. This was a clear signal to the Korean side from the point of view at the time, since the sending of an ambassador with CC membership during this period automatically gave greater priority to bilateral relations between two socialist countries. However, it was not possible to re-establish party relations, as the situation had changed drastically since 1966. 

On 12 January 1966, a USSR party and state delegation led by CPSU Secretary General L. I. Brezhnev paid Mongolia an ‘official friendly visit’. The signing of a new ‘Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance’ during this visit was followed on 4 March 1967 by the conclusion of a Mongolian-Soviet agreement, as a result of which Soviet troops were stationed in Mongolia. Mongolia was thus transformed into a Moscow-led frontline state against China. China was the enemy, and since North Korea was on China’s side, North Korea was also considered an enemy, even if it was not customary at the time to say so out loud. This naturally had a negative influence on Mongolian-North Korean relations. The new Ambassador G. Vandan, a former colonel from the Mongolian Ministry of Public Security, gave top priority to security issues during his term of office until 1971 - obviously in compliance with Soviet security interests. The KGB had strongly activated its activities in China and North Korea from the 1960s onwards, but was certainly dependent on the help of ‘Mongolian comrades’. Thus, a plan of the KGB’s 1st headquarters provided for the intensification of cooperation with the Mongolian intelligence service from 1966/1967. 

However, bilateral trade seemed to stabilize in the second half of the 1960s. In 1971 both sides signed for the first time an agreement on the mutual exchange of goods and payments for five years. The range of North Korean exports had become much broader.

Mongolia seeks constructive approach to party relations

However, with the dispatch of its new Ambassador D. Bars in 1971, the Mongolian Foreign Ministry began to focus again on a constructive approach to party relations. Until then, Bars had held senior positions in the Central Committee of the MPRP and was therefore particularly suited to such a task. The MPRP leadership began to send signals to Kim Il Sung. Party leader Yu. Tsedenbal congratulated ‘the brother people of Korea who had achieved new successes in their struggle to build socialism in the northern part of their country’ in the report of the Central Committee on the 16th Party Congress of the MPRP (June 7, 1971) and expressed ‘firm support’ for the MPRP ‘in its efforts to reunify the motherland by peaceful and democratic means’.[iii]However, Pyongyang also seemed to have a renewed interest in improving relations with Mongolia. In 1972 and 1973, the member of the Political Bureau of the CC of the Workers Party of Korea and Vice-Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kang Ryang-uk, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ho Dam and Vice-President Kang Ryang-uk visited Mongolia. Both sides reinitiated talks, although they had meanwhile ‘drifted apart’. Many features of Pyongyang and on the North Koreans seemed strange even to seasoned Mongolian party members. The personality cult around Kim Il Sung had strengthened during the 1960s. He was addressed as ‘Great Leader’, a title that had previously been reserved for Stalin alone. In addition to this, there was the masses in cadre suits with Kim insignia and the Juche idea of the ‘Great Leader’, which actually preached self-sufficiency. 

In 1975 the Mongolian foreign minister L. Rinchen travelled to Pyongyang. The foreign ministries intensified their contacts with each other again. But the fact that in 1976 Sö Cör, a member of the Politburo of the CC of the Party of Labour and chairman of the all-powerful party control commission, personally attended the 17th party conference of the MPRP, even gave hope that party relations would soon improve. The Mongolian party leader Yu. Tsedenbal emphasized in the Central Committee’s report that the ‘friendly relations between the MPR and the DPRK’ had developed ‘incessantly’ during the last years. He expressed the support of the MPR ‘for the efforts of the Korean people for the peaceful and democratic reunification of their homeland’[iv] and called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from South Korea.[v] In his welcoming speech, the Korean Party Congress guest thanked MPR for its support ‘in the struggle of his people for an independent, peaceful reunification of the country.’[vi] The last part of his speech was read and analysed again and again in the responsible CC departments of the MPRP and the CPSU. North Korea signalled its willingness to cooperate with the MPR and all socialist states, the international communist and labour movement, the non-aligned and developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.[vii] This was a brusque turn away from Beijing. Pyongyang had made a clear announcement. The CCs of the MPRP and CPSU carefully evaluated these passages in the context of their permanent consultations on foreign policy coordination and drew conclusions. The Mongolian head of party and state Yu. Tsedenbal sent a message on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, in which he stressed that bilateral relations would not only serve the benefit, peace and national independence of both peoples, but would also promote progress in Asia.

Hopes dashed

But the hope that a positive development in relations would take place in the near future was again not to be fulfilled. The return visit of the Chairman of the Party Control Commission of the MPRP, S. Luvsanravdan, therefore did not take place until 1980. At best, relations revived around barely perceptible nuances such as the annual conclusion of agreements on the mutual trade in goods. During the 18th Party Congress of the MPRP in 1981, both sides continued to exchange almost formulaic statements. MPRP Secretary General Yu. Tsedenbal pointed out that the MPR would ‘continuously pursue the course of consolidating our friendly relations with the DPRK’[viii] and support Pyongyang’s ideas on Korean reunification. Jong Jung Gi, a member of the WPK politburo and vice-chairman of the DPRK’s administrative council, paid tribute to the statements on the ‘tireless struggle’ of the MPRP and WPK in his address to the Party Congress and finally thanked the WPK for the Mongolian support of the WPK in its ongoing project proposals on Korean unification.[ix]

For Mongolian foreign policy, North Korea had become a sensitive but no longer the most important item on its agenda. Mongolia had become a member of the UN, UNESCO, WHO and other international organisations and maintained diplomatic relations with 90 states in 1980. The CPSU propagated Mongolia among the young nation states as a successful example of ‘the non-capitalist development path’ of a formerly backward country. Mongolia had been firmly integrated into the Eastern Bloc by the Soviet Union and was still a front-line state directed against China under the aegis of the CPSU. Its almost complete economic integration in the Comecon left it with hardly any foreign economic leeway to cooperate with other partners. As far as its relations with North Korea were concerned, the Soviet Union assigned it appropriate tasks within the framework of the coordinated foreign policy of the socialist countries. It was conspicuous that the MPR was in contact with C. Demiddagva from 1981-1984 and with P. Demiddagva from 1984-1989. Urjinlkhundev again sent professional diplomats from the Foreign Ministry to Pyongyang as ambassadors. This policy indicated that the Foreign Ministry intended to give bilateral relations with North Korea a new legal foundation in the near future.

Influences of Soviet perestroika

With the beginning of the Soviet new foreign policy under CPSU General Secretary M.S. Gorbachev and the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine (1985/1986) new conditions for the development of Mongolian-North Korean relations emerged. In 1986, Re En Gu, Deputy Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, and Kang Hui Wan, member of the WPK Politburo, paid an official visit to Mongolia. These visits were followed in the same year by the state visit of the Mongolian party and head of state, J. Batmunkh, to North Korea. Such a state visit at that time consisted of many, almost ritualized elements. These included a ‘friendship meeting of the state guest with the working people.’ Strange as this may sound today. At that time, such a ‘friendship meeting’ was an opportunity to say something to each other in a very covert language and outside the rigid protocol. Indeed, at a ‘friendship meeting’ Batmunkh pointed out that the bilateral ‘relations of friendship and close cooperation’ had ‘honourably overcome the trials of the times’ and would now develop and consolidate ‘on the basis of Marxism/Leninism and socialist internationalism’.[x] Kim Il Sung, on the other hand, projected his expectation that the visit of Batmunkh would ‘open a new stage in deepening our comradely and cordial relations and brotherhood.’[xi] The fact that Batmunkh and Kim Il Sung had met even in the smallest circle was revealed to newspaper readers only from two short sentences in the MPRP newspaper ‘Unen’. On the last day of the visit, J. Batmunkh and Kim Il Sung signed a ‘contract of friendship and cooperation’ with a term of twenty years. Contracts of this kind were basic treaties in the relations between the socialist countries of the time, which set a break after which a higher level of relations was to be expected. However, the treaty text signed by the two party and state leaders said relatively little about bilateral relations. Also, the reference to the UN Charter, which Mongolia usually used to include in the preamble of its treaties, was completely missing. Instead, the sides agreed to base their relations on ‘the principles of recognition of the principles of Marxism/Leninism, proletarian internationalism, sovereignty and equality, non-interference in internal affairs, friendly cooperation and mutual benefit the cooperation’.[xii] They agreed on foreign policy objectives which should strengthen the unity of the socialist countries and support the ‘peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism’.[xiii] Striking demands for disarmament, etc. were included in such treaties as always, but always and exclusively concerned ‘the enemies of socialism’. Both sides agreed to ‘actively fight for the withdrawal of foreign troops and nuclear weapons of all kinds from south Korea and for the Korean people themselves to decide the problem of Korean reunification peacefully on the basis of independence and democratic principles’.[xiv] A ‘Treaty on Cooperation in the Fields of Culture and Science’ was also signed during the state visit. 

However, the conclusion of the new basic treaty did not seem to have any influence on the relations in 1987. Bilateral activities were hardly noticeable. 

Kim Il Sung observed M.S. Gorbachev’s policy towards the People’s Republic of China as well as Mongolian foreign policy, which had begun to move, with great suspicion. From the point of view of the party headquarters in Pyongyang, ‘Soviet-style socialism’ seemed to be given a worldwide boost by M.S. Gorbachev’s policies, but it also seemed to call into question all principles, especially the predominance of the party. Pyongyang did not want to follow this policy, but it did not want to lose its place completely in the economy despite all the autarky owed to the Juche idea. Kim Il Sung seemed to want to attach greater importance to relations with Mongolia. He was aware of the good channels of the Mongolian leadership to the Soviet Party leadership and believed that he needed their political mediation. But Kim Il Sung was particularly keen to see North Korea recognized as an equal socialist state. He was greatly irritated that the ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ concluded with Mongolia in 1986 defined ‘proletarian internationalism’ as one of the basic principles of bilateral relations. This was actually unusual between the countries of the ‘socialist community’ (= Eastern bloc). They regarded ‘socialist internationalism’ as the basis of their interstate relations.

State visit of Kim Il Sung to Ulaanbaatar

Kim Il Sung paid a state visit to Mongolia in the summer of 1988 in his special train. The MPRP party newspaper ‘Unen’ reported on the negotiations and mentioned that the friendly relations between the two parties, countries and peoples were developing ‘on the basis of Marxism/Leninism and socialist internationalism’ and ‘in the spirit’ of the ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ concluded in Pyongyang in 1986. The problem with the ‘principle of relations’ seemed to have been resolved, but the North Korean leader was probably greatly disturbed by the Mongolian party leader’s remarks on democracy, transparency, transition from command methods to economic methods in the management and planning processes in factories, etc. During their negotiations, both sides talked at length about the possibilities for their economic cooperation, including the joint use of the Tavan Tolgoi coking coal deposit, which was to be sought later by all the major powers.

North Korea’s share of Mongolian foreign trade (in USD million)


Source: Mongolian Statistical Yearbook 1997, Ulaanbaatar 1998, p. 210.

They then signed an intergovernmental agreement on the establishment of a joint intergovernmental commission for economic and scientific and technological cooperation. Such commissions existed between all socialist countries. Their main task was to prepare the planning and contractual documents to be concluded in the period between the summits and the state visits and to monitor the fulfilment of the bilateral agreements.

Kim Il Sung certainly took with him various impressions from Ulaanbaatar. On the one hand, he had known the Mongolians for a very long time and as very reliable friends and partners. On the other hand, he did not share their new political visions. Kim was able to accept the Chinese model, albeit with some reservations. He wanted to make the North Korean economy more efficient, but he did not want to touch the party's supremacy and the political system. The Soviets and the Mongols, on the other hand, were about to challenge socialism in its entirety, both the political and the economic system.

First amplitudes in relations

A few months later, in September 1988, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, D. Sodnom, travelled to Pyongyang to take part in the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the DPRK as a representative of Mongolia. Kim Il Sung received the delegation personally, also to address ‘issues of further development of cooperation’. Finally, Sodnom conducted the actual negotiations with his counterpart, the Prime Minister of the Board of Directors, Yi Kun Mo. They agreed on the specific areas of economic cooperation and informed each other of the progress of the establishment of the Joint Governmental Commission.

The desired economic cooperation led to expectations of an increase in legal questions of cooperation in the near future, but also an unprecedented rise in the number of mutual visits by citizens of both countries and the resulting problems. This made it necessary to conclude appropriate treaty foundations. 

In April 1989 the Mongolian Foreign Minister Ts. Gombosuren paid an official visit to North Korea. The fact that the last visit of a Mongolian Foreign Minister to Pyongyang was fifteen years earlier clearly showed how fragile bilateral relations had been up to that point. The Foreign Minister was received by President Kim Il Sung even before the negotiations with his counterpart. During the talks, he made it clear that it was important to him that the ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ concluded in 1986 should quickly be brought to life. 

During the following negotiations between the two foreign ministers, C. Gombosuren presented two new basic premises of Mongolian foreign policy: 

1. the MPR government would not only support every step aimed at consolidating peace and security in the region, but would always make its own contribution to it

2) The MPR government would ‘endeavour to cooperate in the Asian direction not only with socialist countries but also with countries with a different social structure on the basis of the principles of equality and mutual benefit in the areas of trade and economy.’[xv] 

The North Korean side understood that the second premise would also lead to MPR establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea in the foreseeable future. Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam made it clear that North Korea also intended to strengthen peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region through its policy of unifying Korea. Both sides understood this to mean that they would also have a common bridge for regional cooperation. Finally, the two foreign ministers signed a consular convention, exchanged the instruments of ratification of the treaty ‘on the mutual provision of legal assistance in civil, family and criminal matters’[xvi] and signed the corresponding protocol thereto. During a joint lunch, both Foreign Ministers confirmed their intention to vigorously develop relations and cooperation between the two countries. Gombosuren reaffirmed MPR’s support for the proposals and initiatives of the North Korean government for the unification of Korea ‘on a peaceful and democratic basis without external interference’. Mongolia also supported the North Korean proposals to make the Korean Peninsula a nuclear-free, peaceful zone, to gradually reduce troops and weapons, and to hold talks between both parts of Korea. Foreign Minister Ts. Gombosuren later assessed in Ulaanbaatar that the negotiations in Pyongyang had taken place in a ‘warm and constructive atmosphere’. 

The conclusion of the above-mentioned documents at the negotiations ensured that the consulates of both sides were able to begin their activities at both embassies in the foreseeable future. In August 1989, both sides also concluded an air transport agreement. 

During the eventful years of bilateral relations from 1984 to 1989, P. Urjinlkhundev, a particularly capable diplomat, served as Ambassador to Pyongyang. He was actively involved in laying the new foundations of bilateral relations and in the content of the high-level and top-level visits. At the end of his term of office as ambassador, he also completed studies at the Moscow Academy of Social Sciences at the Central Committee of the CPSU, after which he worked as MPRP Secretary of the Mongolian Foreign Ministry from 1989 to 1990. After he had headed the ‘General Department’ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1990 to 1991, he was sent to South Korea as Ambassador for the years 1991 to 1996.

Party relations as a basis?

Safeguarding the interests of the then single ruling MPRP also played a major role in the Foreign Ministry during the period of upheaval. As a result of these interests, J. Badraa, who had served as 2nd secretary of the Mongolian Revolutionary Youth Association until 1989, was sent to Pyongyang as ambassador of the MPR and protector of the interests of the MPRP for the years 1989 to 1991. The high point of his activities was the preparation and securing of Mongolian participation in the ‘8th Festival of Youth and Students of the World’ (July 1-8, 1989) in Pyongyang. To this festival, the MPRP top official and vice-chairman of the Grand State Assembly, Ts. Namsrai personally arrived. Kim Il Sung received him personally for a detailed discussion on bilateral relations. 

The Korean side sent an ambassador in 1990, who had previously worked for years in the CC department ‘International Relations’. Ambassador Čen Yun Hao had been instructed in Pyongyang to 1. develop relations with the MPRP, but in no case to lose them in view of the upheaval in Mongolia. 2. to promote political and economic relations between the two states and 3. to keep an ‘eye’ on Mongolian-South Korean relations. Commenting on the bilateral relations, he said: ‘It is the consistent position of our party and government to further develop our friendly relations with their country... The friendship of our two countries is a friendship with old traditions based on class positions... We highly appreciate the party and government policies and the achievements and successes of the people of Mongolia and wish them great success in their cause of transformation...’[xvii] The Ambassador stressed his country’s interest in developing economic cooperation in particular. The formation of joint ventures seemed to play a special role in North Korea’s concept. But Mongolia was also interested in this, especially in the field of traditional medicine. Joint research and processing of medicinal plants was one of the projects that both sides preferred.

Establishing diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea

On 26 March 1990 MPR and the Republic of Korea (henceforth South Korea) agreed to establish diplomatic relations. The following day, the daily newspaper ‘Unen’ published the relevant press release on the first page and a commentary on the last page. Its author made clear that Mongolia had to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea for good reasons. It wanted to strengthen its own position in Asia and in the region in order to support its own initiative to create a Northeast Asian consultation mechanism (1989). Mongolia’s foreign trade required economic cooperation with South Korea, which at that time was one of the newly industrialized countries. But the author of the commentary also made one thing clear: ‘The establishment of diplomatic relations between the MPR and the Republic of Korea must not in any way hinder the further deepening and development of friendly relations and cooperation between the MPR and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Our State will continue to develop its traditional relations established with the DPRK on the basis of the 1986 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation without interruption.’[xviii]It sounded like a proposal to both sides when the author finally stated in the last sentence: ‘MPR actively supports the struggle of the Korean people for the reunification of their country by peaceful means.’[xix]

The establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea was, as usual, approved by the Politburo of the CC of the MPRP on the basis of a proposal by the Foreign Ministry. This had also happened in other socialist countries of Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Hungary. North Korea conducted a bitter ‘traitor’ campaign against these countries. In the case of Mongolia, however, Pyongyang remained silent. What the Mongolian ambassador to the North Korean Foreign Ministry was told about this is beyond our knowledge.

Mongolian foreign policy began to vigorously promote and develop relations with South Korea, but also to address the concerns of both states in as balanced a manner as possible. When, in September 1991, the 46th session of the UN General Assembly discussed the admission of both Korean states to the UN, Mongolia supported both sides. The Mongolian President also seemed to want to make good on his first official visit to South Korea in October 1991 the foreign policy claim that he was working in the interests of the Korean nation in relations with both Korean states. In the ‘Joint Declaration’ he welcomed the admission of both Korean states to the UN and reaffirmed ‘that the unification of South and North Korea is an issue to be decided between them through consultations’ and that ‘their motherland must be united peacefully’.[xx] He also expressed this position during the reception that President Roh Tae Woo gave in his honour. The fact that P. Urjinlkhundev was ambassador in Seoul (formerly ambassador in Pyongyang) at this time may have promoted the understanding of the Mongolian leadership in the Korea problem. The Mongolian Foreign Ministry was able to deal well with the challenges of a balanced Korea policy, because they already knew this from their relations with the GDR (East Germany) and the FRG (West Germany). North Korea and South Korea, on the other hand, met the demands of Mongolian foreign policy with an outwardly friendly, cautious distance. Mongols, however, who each had the visa stamp of the other country in their passports, were prevented from entering both North Korea and South Korea.

In 1991, Ambassador J. Badraa returned to Mongolia, where he worked in the apparatus of the MPRP for ten years as its chief financial manager. In 1991 Mongolia once again sent a political heavyweight as ambassador to Pyongyang. Sh. Gungaadorj was not just anyone. He had held several ministerial posts. From March-September 1990, he served as chairman of the Council of Ministers and then as advisor to the President of Mongolia. The fact that he was one of Mongolia’s best agricultural specialists predestined him for the ambassador post in a special way, as both countries had defined agriculture as a special direction of economic cooperation. But Gungaadorj only succeeded in keeping party relations alive. State relations, on the other hand, began to stagnate again for various reasons. North Korea had withdrawn from foreign policy since the visits of the prime ministers of Laos and Pakistan in 1993 and had not received any other heads of state or government. When in 1995 Mongolia terminated the ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ concluded in 1986 because it no longer corresponded to the existing legal framework in Mongolia with the adoption of the new Mongolian Basic Law (1992) and the new foreign policy and security concept (1994), there was no reaction from Pyongyang. Mongolia’s proposal to negotiate a new treaty was not taken up because North Korea was not capable of acting at the time.Kim Il Sung had died in 1994. His son Kim Jong Il took over the government only after a three-year mourning period. This long period of mourning paralysed the North Korean state apparatus in many segments, including foreign relations and Mongolian-North Korean relations. 

Ambassador Sh. Gungaadorj was recalled in 1995. He was succeeded in the same year by D. Byambaa, who had previously worked for ten years in various functions at the Mongolian embassy in Pyongyang.

One step back, two steps forward

A good two years had passed since the appointment of Ambassador D. Byambaa without any significant activities in bilateral relations. However, there had been new developments in the domestic politics of both countries. In Mongolia, an alliance of opposition parties had defeated the once all-powerful MPRP in the 1996 parliamentary elections. The Western-oriented alliance ‘Democratic Union’ provided the majority of the members of parliament and formed the government. However, the government stood by the continuity of foreign policy in the sense of the concepts of foreign policy and security policy adopted in 1994. The government thus continued to pursue the goal of developing equal and balanced relations with both Korean states.

In January 1998, the Mongolian Foreign Minister Sh. Altangerel paid a working visit to North Korea at the invitation of his Korean counterpart. The 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations provided the framework. Both sides endeavoured to interpret even the smallest success as ‘intensification of relations.’ Real interests for both sides, however, were mainly in the economic sphere. Both sides had enormous economic problems. Mongolia, as an exporter of raw materials, was primarily interested in overcoming its situation without access to the sea between Russia and China. Foreign Minister Sh. Altangerel therefore primarily expressed Mongolia's interest in participating in the development of the economic area along the Tumen River, for which China, Mongolia, Russia and North and South Korea had concluded corresponding agreements, and the North Korean free trade zone Rajin-Sonbong. However, North Korea also had clear interests due to its precarious economic situation, as became clear from the talks between Foreign Minister Sh. Altangerel and the Chairman of the North Korean Committee for Economic Relations with Foreign Countries. North Korea was under strong economic pressure because of its ailing economy, the practical consequences of its Juche idea and natural disasters. This prompted the North Korean Foreign Ministry to step up its activities in 1998. 

An important experience that the North Korean side gained from the talks with Foreign Minister Sh. Altangerel was that the new government was able to keep party politics and foreign policy strictly separate. Nevertheless, in this situation, the Korean Labour Party continued to seek to close ranks with the MPRP. In February, an MPRP delegation led by U. Enkhtuvshin travelled to Pyongyang at the invitation of the WPK Central Committee. Actually, the head of the MPRP N. Enkhbayar should have led the delegation. However, during this time he gave a lecture on Buddhist philosophy at a conference in London financed by the World Bank. 

In April 1998, the Deputy Foreign Minister, Choe Su Hon, came to Mongolia to hold talks with O. Ochirjav, State Secretary of the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The main point was to hold the meeting of the joint government commission as soon as possible. North Korea also wanted a solution regarding its rent costs for its embassy building in Mongolia. Both sides finally agreed to suspend payments for the use of the embassy buildings for a certain period of time. The Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs interpreted the visit as being ‘important for maintaining the level of relations and seeking new forms of cooperation’.[xxi]

Already in November 1998, Deputy Foreign Minister Pak Don Čun travelled to Mongolia for talks at the Mongolian Foreign Ministry. Both sides assessed the level of political relations as good. Now relations in trade and economy and preferably in the fields of agriculture, construction and tourism had to be developed, the interlocutors explained. In the meantime, both sides had agreed in principle to introduce direct flights between Ulaanbaatar and Pyongyang in the near future. The visit contributed to the consolidation of relations, the Mongolian Foreign Ministry later explained.

North Korea’s economic situation deteriorated at a rapid pace. The government was forced to take drastic austerity measures in 2019. Among the 18 embassies that North Korea closed in 1999 was the embassy in Mongolia. The North Korean embassy in Beijing was henceforth to take over Mongolian-North Korean relations in second accreditation. 

In this precarious situation, the Korean Labour Party concluded that it had to establish party relations with the Mongolian National Democratic Party (MNDP), which formed the nucleus of the ruling coalition in Mongolia. The MNDP delegation that travelled to Mongolia in February 1999 was led by party leader Ts. Elbegdorj, who was received in Ulaanbaatar by the North Korean ambassador, who announced high-level negotiations between the two parties. The goal of the negotiations would be ‘to develop the friendly relations between both parties and countries at a higher level’, the ambassador announced.[xxii] The results of the Pyongyang talks made it clear that both sides wanted to give a boost to the development of bilateral relations by means of a high-level meeting.

Visit of the Mongolian Prime Minister to Pyongyang

Mongolian Prime Minister R. Amarjargal paid an official visit to North Korea from 4-5 November 1999. The Prime Minister was accompanied by his ministers for infrastructure development, agriculture, industry, foreign affairs, foreign trade, the heads of the foreign investment and foreign trade authorities and a business group of 60 businessmen. The Mongolian Prime Minister tried above all to strengthen the North Korean side’s understanding of Mongolian policy, to maintain equal and balanced relations with both Korean states. Both sides assessed that relations were developing ‘with normal stability’. Prime Minister R. Amarjargal called for the conclusion of a new legal document ‘defining the basic principles of friendly relations and cooperation’ and asked to consider the importance of a working diplomatic mission. The Prime Ministers paid special attention to the issue of economic relations. The Mongolian Prime Minister expressed interest in cooperating in the construction, agricultural and transport sectors, establishing joint ventures with North Korea and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone himself. He made the proposal to conclude an investment and double taxation agreement in the near future.

North Korea’s share of Mongolian foreign trade (in USD million)


Source: Mongolian Statistical Yearbook 1997(1999, 2000), Ulaanbaatar 1998(2000, 2001), p. 211, 142, 177.

Both sides agreed to form a working group on transit transport issues and both agreed to participate in the Tumen-Gol project. The Mongolian side was also interested in developing cultural and educational relations. It proposed to finalize a cooperation plan on cooperation in culture, science and technology for the years 2000-2002 and to participate in the ‘Great Spring Festival’ in Pyongyang in 2000.[xxiii]The fact that Prime Minister R. Amarjargal also signed an agreement to take on up to 10,000 North Korean workers should prove interesting in every respect at a later stage. It is not known to what extent this also included and perhaps legalised the North Koreans who had fled to Mongolia since the mid-1990s.

The actual significance of the official visit to North Korea only became clear in the context of the working visit to China and the visit to South Korea that followed immediately afterwards. What was the aim of Mongolian foreign policy? First of all, the aim was to correct the ‘inactive’ tendency of Mongolian-North Korean relations and to give them a corresponding impulse at a high level. By paying an official visit to both Korean states, the Prime Minister demonstrated Mongolia’s claim to pursue a multi-sectoral foreign policy that also allowed it to maintain equal and balanced relations with both Korean states. Mongolia thus defied the policy of other states to drive North Korea into isolation. Prime Minister R. Amarjargal exchanged views with the prime ministers of the two Korean states and China on security issues in the region, in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. On the Korean question, he supported the position that the problems on the Korean Peninsula should be solved exclusively by peaceful and negotiated means. 

Bilateral relations are becoming more intensive

Mongolia was interested in moving relations forward after its Prime Minister’s visit to Pyongyang. It sent J. Lombo, a former graduate of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and diplomat with many years of North Korean experience, to Pyongyang as ambassador. Since Ambassador J. Lombo had also served as 1st Secretary and Counsellor at the Mongolian Mission to South Korea from 1996 to 2001, he was in a sense the ‘embodiment’ of Mongolia’s new Korea policy based in Pyongyang. 

Mongolia urged North Korea to provide bilateral relations with a new contractual foundation as soon as possible. The North Korean side accepted and both sides entered into negotiations. During the official visit of North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun in August 2002, the new ‘Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ was signed in Ulaanbaatar. In it, both countries committed themselves to developing their relations and cooperation on the basis of the goals and principles of the United Nations Charter. Both committed themselves to contribute to peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The fifth article was undoubtedly of particular importance. Both sides undertook not to join any alliances or conclude any treaties with another side ‘which threaten the autonomy and independence of the other contracting party’, not to allow their territory to be used against each other by third parties and not to allow the transit and stationing of third parties’ nuclear and weapons of mass destruction on their territory. The fifth article stated, inter alia ‘Mongolia supports the efforts and aspirations of the Korean people for the independent and peaceful reunification of their country without any external interference.’[xxiv]

As far as economic relations were concerned, the parties granted each other most-favoured-nation treatment and encouraged and supported each other’s investments in their own country. These privileges were underpinned by the signing of appropriate documents. On October 3, 2002, the ‘Agreement to Avoid Double Taxation and Prevent Evasion of Income and Capital Tax’ was signed in Pyongyang in Korean, Mongolian and English.[xxv] This was followed on 19 November 2003 by the signing of the ‘Intergovernmental Agreement on the Promotion, Support and Protection of Investments’, also in three languages.[xxvi]


Relations between the two countries developed more vigorously and continuously on their new legal basis. The frequency of official visits at high and highest level and working visits at medium level increased and stabilised. Cooperation deepened in many areas. Trust, a sense of proportion, and increased knowledge about each other determined the relationship. Mongolia sought to become involved in Northeast Asia as a reliable partner for peace and security. For Mongolia, this included détente on the Korean Peninsula and the future unification of the Korean people. As an active participant, it is prepared to make its own contribution in this direction as a mediator. 

Today, nearly two decades later, Mongolian foreign policy, is faced with the question of the extent to which it should pursue a more pro-active policy on Korean Peninsula issues. The results achieved so far by the engaged major powers are rather modest. They are so because some of them use the "Korean issue" only to better position themselves against China. These political power games benefit neither Koreans nor Northeast Asians. It is time to take matters into our own hands in Northeast Asia. Mongolian foreign policy should use its great potential to provide powerful impetus.A Korean-Korean summit in Mongolia could certainly provide an entry point into a process that would be vital both for the Korean nation and for peace and security in Northeast Asia. The possibilities of the trilateral format established

[i] Ж. Санжмятав, Сайхан учрал бүрдэж, Самбуу гуайтай ажилласан минь, Алтан Аргамж VI, Улаанбаатар 2011, p. 153-158.

[ii] Договор о дружбе, сотрудничестве и взаимной помощи между СССР и КНДР, 

[iii] Ю. Цэдэнбал, Илтгэл, Үгүүлэл, Хэлсэн Үг, V bot‘ 1970-1976, Улаанбаатар 1976, p. 193.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Монгол Ардын Хувьсгалт Намын XVII Их Хурал, Улаанбаатар 1976, p. 26.

[vi] Ibid. p. 190. 

[vii] Ibid. 

[viii] Монгол Ардын Хувьсгалт Намын XVIII Их Хурал, Улаанбаатар 1981, p. 27.

[ix] Ibid., p. 57, 213-215

[x] Нөхөр Ж. Батмөнхийн хэлсэн үг, Үнэн, 19.11.1986.

[xi] Нөхөр Ким Ир Сений хэлсэн үг, Үнэн, 19.11.1986.

[xii] БНМАУ, БНАСАУ-ын хоорондын найрамдал, хамтын ажиллагааны тухай гэрээ, Үнэн, 22.11.1986.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] БНМАУ, БНАСАУ-ын хоорондын найрамдал, хамтын ажиллагааны тухай гэрээ, Үнэн, 22.11.1986.

[xvi] Бүгд Найрамдах Монгол Ард Улс, Бүгд Найрамдах Ардчилсан Солонгос Ард Улсын Хооронд Иргэн, Гэр Бүл Болон Эрүүгийн Хэргийн Талаар Эрх Зүйн Туслалцаа Харилцан Үзүүлэх Тухай Гэрээ,in Монгол Улсын Олон Улсын Гэрээ, Улаанбаатар 2003, p. 139-148. 

[xvii] Элчин Сайдын Индэр: Бид нийтлэг зорилготой, Үнэн, 09.09.1990.

[xviii] Уламжлалт харилцааг улам хөгжүүлнэ, Үнэн, 27.03.1990.

[xix] Ibid. 

[xx] БНМАУ, БНСУ-ын Хамтарсан Мэдэгдэл, Ардын Эрх, 25.10.1991.

[xxi] БНАСАУ-ын Гадаад хэргийн дэд сайдайлчлав, in Гадаад Харилцаа 8(36).04.1998. 

[xxii] Тусалж дэмжиж сайн санаа өвөрлөн очиж байна, Үндэсний Эрх, 09.02.1999.

[xxiii] Монгол улсын Ерөнхий сайд БНАСАУ-д айлчлав, in Гадаад Харилцаа 24(74)15.11.1999.

[xxiv] Vertrag über freundschaftliche Beziehungen und Zusammenarbeit zwischen der Mongolei und der Demokratischen Volksrepublik Korea, in Udo B. Barkmann, Dokumente zur Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik der Mongolei 1990-2015, Köln-Weimar-Wien 2016, p. 405-408.

[xxv] Татвар давхардуулан ногдуулахгүй байх тухай Монгол улсын олoн улсын хэлэлцээрүүд, Бодь II, Улаанбаатар 2011, p. 379-392.

[xxvi] Монгол Улс, Бүгд Найрамдах Ардчилсан Солонгос Ард Улсын харилцаа – Нэгэн Жаран, Пхеньян 2007, р. 116-125.