[Viewpoint]Mongolia: a place to startMongolia is not exempt from global warming. Temperatures used to fall below zero in mid-April, but this year, spring has come early in the capital Ulan Bator. It feels rather hot by midday. If it weren’t for the yellow dust blowing now and then, it doesn’t seem much different from spring in Seoul.
Maybe, it is because of the heated real estate boom that I feel warmer. Today, Ulan Bator is one giant construction site. In every corner of downtown, buildings and apartments are springing up like mushrooms after a rain. In the past year, real estate prices have more than doubled. Luxury condominiums built by Korean and Chinese construction firms are being sold at 4 to 5 million won ($4,044 to $5,055) per pyeong, about 3.3 square meters. Because Mongolia’s per-capita income is $1,500, such properties are hardly affordable, but the condominiums are in high demand. The real estate boom illustrates what is meant by concentration of wealth.
The development boom in Ulan Bator is, of course, due to the skyrocketing prices of raw materials and the competition for resources. Mongolia has the 10th largest natural resource reserve in the world. Coal, copper, molybdenum, uranium and gold are buried around its plains and deserts. The Tavan Tolgoy bituminous coal deposit and Oyu Tolgoy copper and gold mines in the Gobi Desert are estimated to be over $200 billion in combined value, and as they are being developed in earnest, enormous amounts of money are flowing into Mongolia. In the age of resource wars, Mongolians no longer have to sit on their gold mine and starve.
Big powers like the United States, Japan, China and Russia are becoming more aggressive in their efforts to engage Mongolia. They are offering hundreds of millions of dollars in official development assistance, loans and debt write-offs.
Afraid they might be excluded from resource development, countries are impatiently jumping in. So the Mongolian government is taking a high hand. With a nationalistic movement to safeguard its resources, Mongolia is pursuing a revision in its law on minerals so that the government holds more than a 51 percent stake. It is doubtful Korea will be able to get a share.
Korea has so far provided only $20 million in ODA to Mongolia since 1991. Yet we cannot afford to offer hundreds of millions of dollars like the superpowers. There should be a special plan at a national level. And one of the ideas was a visa-free deal between Korea and Mongolia.
It is no news that Korea and Mongolia share ethnic, historical and cultural kinship. Mongols do not raise a psychological barrier toward Korea that they have toward China or Russia. While the Korean Wave has passed its peak, it is still blowing strong in Mongolia. In Mongolia, Korean is the second most popular foreign language after English. Young Mongols dream of working for a Korean company or moving to Korea to work. However, Korea is still a difficult destination for them to reach.
Every Monday, an average of 700 Mongolians line up in front of the Korean Embassy in Ulan Bator in the early morning to apply for a visa. And the long line can be seen even on cold winter mornings when the temperature drops to 30 degrees below zero. However, the visa requires complicated documents and is very hard to get, so even many Mongolians with money give up on visiting Korea.
At present, there are 33,000 Mongolians residing in Korea, and about 40 percent of them are presumed to be illegal immigrants. Even if visas are waived and the Mongolians can freely travel to Korea, experts estimate that no more than 100,000 of them will reside in Korea.
To a country with a population of 49 million, 100,000 people does not make much difference. However, 100,000 Mongolians residing in Korea would have unimaginable political, economic and cultural impact on Mongolian society, with its population of 27 million. Resource diplomacy and Korea’s northward strategy can start here.
The Mongolians call Korea solongos, meaning “rainbow country.” Let’s make the dream of solongos come true with a visa-waiver agreement. It is a strategic decision only a government with a vision for the nation’s future can make.
We cannot explore the future with a passive and narrow mind.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Bae Myung-bok