School­house sym­bol of Mon­go­lia-N. Korea ties


For more than 50 years chil­dren on the windswept steppes of Mon­go­lia have stud­ied in a school built by a sur­pris­ing bene­fac­tor: iso­lated, im­pov­er­ished, of­ten im­pla­ca­ble North Korea.

An im­age of the her­mit state’s founder Kim Il Sung hangs in a class­room in the yel­low, two-story build­ing, sym­bol­iz­ing a time when the coun­tries marched largely in lock­step as Com­mu­nist cogs in the ma­chin­ery of Cold War con­fronta­tion.

Now they move to starkly dif­fer­ent rhythms.

For­mer Soviet satel­lite Mon­go­lia rode the wave of revo­lu­tion that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989 and has be­come a vi­brant democ­racy. North Korea, con­versely, has dou­bled down into mono­lithic, nu­clear-armed iso­la­tion.

But the ties of the past en­dure, as ev­i­denced by con­tin­u­ing North Korean at­ten­tion to the school — and a quiet diplo­matic chan­nel be­tween Ulan Ba­tor and Py­ongyang.

The school has around 300 pupils aged six to 18, some of them board­ers who stay in a dor­mi­tory while their no­madic par­ents herd sheep and other live­stock on the steppes.

Deshigiin Chu­lu­un­bat, prin­ci­pal, says its 1961 con­struc­tion had its ori­gins in the Korean War of the pre­vi­ous decade, when Mon­go­lia sent horses and food as aid to Py­ongyang and also took in North Korean or­phans.

“North Korea re­cip­ro­cated that help and built this school,” he said at the fa­cil­ity in Altanbulag, Tov province.

Even now North Korean visi­tors come ev­ery year, de­spite Py­ongyang es­chew­ing the demo­cratic trends that Mon­go­lia has em­braced and man­ag­ing an econ­omy un­der in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions over its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams.

Py­ongyang ren­o­vated a physics class­room in 2012 — the cen­te­nary of Kim’s birth — in­stalling two plaques above the door em­bla­zoned with his name in Korean and Mon­go­lian, as well as his por­trait over the black­board.

“The or­di­nary peo­ple in the vil­lage are to­tally un­aware of North Korea’s pol­i­tics,” Chu­lu­un­bat told AFP.

“They don’t pay at­ten­tion or have any in­ter­est in it. They just think it’s good to col­lab­o­rate with them and have a great school from them.”

‘No tyranny lasts for­ever’

Mon­go­lia’s gov­ern­ment, how­ever, acts as an in­ter­me­di­ary in global ef­forts to en­gage with North Korea.

As part of what is known as the Ulaan­baatar Di­a­logue — the name uses of­fi­cial translit­er­a­tion — Mon­go­lia has hosted ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween diplo­mats from Tokyo and Py­ongyang over the is­sue of Ja­panese kid­napped to North Korea to train its spies.

It saw a re­union in March last year be­tween the par­ents of best known ab­ductee Megumi Yokota — seized as a 13-year-old in 1977, and whose fate re­mains un­clear — and her North Korea-born daugh­ter.

“Mon­go­lia is uniquely po­si­tioned as the only coun­try in North­east Asia that en­joys good re­la­tions not only with North Korea but also South Korea, the United States, China, Rus­sia and Ja­pan,” Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion scholars wrote in a pa­per.

A sprawl­ing, sparsely pop­u­lated coun­try squeezed be­tween gi­ant neigh­bors Rus­sia and China, Mon­go­lia lies in a wider East Asian re- gion be­set by ter­ri­to­rial squab­bles and re­sent­ments from mod­ern history, no­tably World War II.

“Mon­go­lia wants to be a new Helsinki, a new Geneva,” said D. Shurkhuu, se­nior re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs of the Mon­go­lian Academy of Sciences.

The Fin­nish cap­i­tal was a venue for eas­ing Cold War ten­sions via the land­mark Helsinki Ac­cords, and the Swiss city has for decades served as a key in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­at­ing cen­ter.

Even so Mon­go­lia has not shied from blunt speak­ing.

Pres­i­dent Tsakhi­agiin El­beg­dorj, who as a stu­dent leader played a key role in the coun­try’s demo­cratic tran­si­tion, vis­ited North Korea in 2013 and ex­tolled the ben­e­fits of free­dom at Py­ongyang’s Kim Il Sung Univer­sity, say­ing in a speech: “No tyranny lasts for­ever.”

John Delury, an ex­pert on China and North­east Asia at Yon­sei Univer­sity in Seoul, ap­plauds Ulan Ba­tor’s ef­forts.

“The plat­form that Mon­go­lia pro­vides is in­cred­i­bly valu­able be­cause the United States gov­ern­ment hardly talks to North Korea at all and you need some di­a­logue to have some ba­sis for un­der­stand­ing where po­si­tions are,” he told AFP.

“And Mon­go­lia can cre­ate this neu­tral ground.” But El­beg­dorj did not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he noted. “The fact that he didn’t does re­mind us of the lim­its of this chan­nel.”

‘Pretty sur­real’

Such geopo­lit­i­cal in­tri­ca­cies pass over Altanbulag. The vil­lage is only around 50 kilo­me­ters from Ulan Ba­tor but feels a world away from the cap­i­tal.

The last of the route is over un­paved steppe, where ovoo — mounds of earth and rock draped with col­or­ful ban­ners and sa­cred in Mon­go­lian shaman­ism — dot the land­scape.

Amer­i­can An­drew Guar­ino was a vol­un­teer English teacher there for two years. One day in 2012, he was sum­moned to find nu­mer­ous of­fi­cial ve­hi­cles and men in dark suits with Kim Il Sung badges.

Dur­ing a solemn cer­e­mony mark­ing the ren­o­va­tion of a class­room, the visi­tors clapped in uni­son, “never off beat,” and bowed be­fore re­peat­ing the se­quence, all with mil­i­tary-like pre­ci­sion. “It was pretty sur­real,” he said.


(Above) This pic­ture taken on Feb. 13 shows school­child­ren in class in Altanbulag, Mon­go­lia. (Left) This pic­ture taken on Feb. 13 shows a school dur­ing sunset in Altanbulag, some 50 kilo­me­ters from the cap­i­tal Ulan Ba­tor.

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