[VIEWPOINT]Friendship must be worked atThe temperature of Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, is minus 16 degrees centigrade (3 F) these days, but the temperature of its diplomatic circles is that of springtime. Nambaryn Enkhbayer, the Mongolian president who took office in May, is now paying a seven-day state visit to China. U.S. President George W. Bush, who took the opportunity while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to visit four Asian countries, stayed in Mongolia just four hours but promised to provide full political, economical and military support for the country. Mongolia gained substantial diplomatic status in making clear to the world that the United States is its “third neighbor.”
Let’s look at a world map. Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China. Due to this location, Mongolia has suffered all kinds of hardships for hundreds of years from its neighbors, since the Yuan dynasty that the descendants of Genghis Khan founded became subject to the Ming Dynasty.
When it colonized the country, China named it “Mongolia,” meaning “uncivilized barbarian,” instead of “Mongol,” meaning “brave.” As the country achieved independence hand in hand with Russian revolutionary forces in the 1920s, Mongolia became the first communist country in Asia and lived as a satellite country of the former Soviet Union. Because of its two huge neighbors, Mongolia’s biggest national concern was to make an alliance which could protect it from Russia and China. At last, Mongolia came to hold hands with the United States as its third neighbor, which can hold the other two powers in check militarily and economically.
Until Mongolia and the United States developed to be “third neighbors” and brethren countries, Mongolia put all its efforts into diplomacy. As soon as Mongolia ― whose per capita gross domestic product is a mere $1,900 ― heard that Hurricane Katrina had hit the United States ― which is 21 times better off with its per capita gross domestic product of $40,100, Mongolia declared support for the damaged city at the government level and business people began to collect money to help victims, even before the city was submerged. Mongolia , whose soldiers set foot in Iraq again 750 years after Genghis Khan’s expedition to the West, has the record of dispatching the largest number in proportion to population among countries that sent troops to Iraq .
In the United States and other western countries, Mongolia was traditionally compared to the ball in American football. Mongolia was classified an unstable entity in that no one knew when and where it would bounce between Russia and China and it was also one of the farthest countries away. But as the country changed to a liberal democracy with the collapse of Eastern Europe, Mongolia’s geopolitical weak point began to be viewed as a unique strong point. This change was followed by the United Nations’ acknowledgement of the country as a non-nuclear country, for the first time in the world. With its people’s strong will toward democracy and market economy and their full support for the war on terrorism, Mongolia has rapidly emerged as a country of strategic importance. Mongolia is no longer the football it was 15 years ago. The country gives the impression it is a stepping-stone of democracy that can be reached in half an hour from Beijing, three hours from Seoul and seven hours from Tokyo, and that can control China and Russia at the same time.
I am envious to see Mongolia successfully develop as a democratic country based on a market economy, in contrast to North Korea. At the same time, we also need to remember that as Mongolia’s strategic importance grows bigger, the strategic value of South Korea becomes relatively smaller. A turning point is now provided for the United States’ security line that connected Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, to expand to a new defense line that would connect Mongolia and India.
Even between private ordinary people, maintaining a relationship is more difficult than first meeting, and reunions are more difficult than saying goodbye. Relations between South Korea and the United States are undergoing pain for growth amid the issue of the relocation of U.S. forces stationed in Korea and the controversy over removing the statue of General MacArthur. We should consider why Mongolia longs to establish ties with the United States. Which country was historically a threat to the existence of Korea and which is its “third neighbor?”
* The writer is a professor emeritus of international relations at Sejong University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Joung-won