JEJU ISLAND, South Korea — Mongolia is a landlocked wilderness the size of Alaska. With a population of only 2.7 million, it is squeezed between two geopolitical giants, China and Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1992, leaving the country alone — and vulnerable.

Mongolia devised a novel solution to its security dilemma: It declared its territory a nuclear weapons-free zone and has worked to gain international recognition of that status. Success would mark an important advance in the fight to shore up the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Mongolia’s euphoria at the end of the Soviet era was tempered by concern. Northeast Asia remained a dangerously tense region. North Korea is a focus of international attention, and while Russia and China have declared a new era of “friendly, good neighborly” relations, their past has often been tense.

During the Cold War, Moscow deployed conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction in Mongolia, raising the possibility that the country would become the battlefield for a nuclear war even though Mongolia would have no say over the use of those weapons.

The prospect of being involuntarily sucked into a nuclear conflict had a profound impact on Mongolian security thinking. Even though Soviet forces withdrew from the country, the nuclear threat persists: Mongolia is virtually surrounded by nearly 30 nuclear and nuclear-related installations and waste depositories, and every fourth registered nuclear weapon test in the world has been conducted in its vicinity.

Traditionally, states that want to ensure that they don’t get dragged into a nuclear war have created nuclear weapons-free zones (NWFZs), which ban the presence of nuclear weapons in member states. A NWFZ precludes members from producing, storing, installing, testing or deploying nuclear weapons on their territories. At present, there are five NWFZs: Antarctica, Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia (which includes the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Africa (although not enough states have ratified the treaty for it to go into effect).

Other NWFZs are being contemplated in Central Asia, Central Europe, the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. More than 110 states — nearly two-thirds of the members of the United Nations — are now part of NWFZs.

Unfortunately, Mongolia is not situated in any recognized NWFZ region. So, in 1992, it declared itself to be an NWFZ. But Mongolia’s declaration — or that of any single state — is not enough. Unlike formally negotiated NWFZs, Mongolia has made only a unilateral initiative that is not internationally binding.

Since the purpose of the declaration is to protect Mongolia — by telling the world that it does not have or want such weapons, and that it doesn’t want other nations to use them on its territory either — nuclear weapons states must recognize the status and pledge that they will not take advantage of it either to attack the country or to use the territory to attack others. Such assurances are crucial in times of crisis. Without them, there is the risk of a security vacuum that could make Mongolia a target.

Jargalsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, Mongolia’s former ambassador to the U.N., notes that the nuclear weapons states are not especially keen on the idea: They worry that it “might set a precedent. Other individual countries might ask for security assurances. It distracts from the focus on traditional nuclear weapons-free zones. And it complicates nuclear strategic geography, policies and calculations.”

Still, nuclear weapons states have backed Mongolia’s move. Both China and Russia have concluded treaties with Mongolia on friendly relations and promised to respect its nuclear weapons-free status. The country has held separate bilateral talks with three other nuclear-weapons states — the United States, Britain and France — and they have also been supportive. These efforts resulted in the February 2000 passage by the Mongolian State Great Hural (Parliament) of a law formalizing and regulating the country’s nuclear weapons-free status. The U.N. General Assembly has backed the move in several resolutions.

Mongolia is currently working on a trilateral treaty with China and Russia that will include an optional protocol for other nuclear weapons states. The treaty will call for respect of the country’s nuclear weapons-free status and follow NWFZ treaties in structure, terms and purpose.

Mongolia’s determination to create a single-state NWFZ is a novel decision. According to Enkhsaikhan: “This is the 21st century; it’s time to think out of the box.” The lowering of tensions between its neighbors has created an opportunity. “Neither country is stronger than the other, so there is no inclination to exploit its position vis-a-vis Mongolia. We can persuade each that a nuclear weapons-free Mongolia ensures that our territory isn’t used against it in the future.”

Enkhsaikhan sees additional advantages. “NWFZs allow small- and medium-size states to contribute in their own way to nonproliferation, while “strengthening their national security.”

Finally, a nuclear weapons-free Mongolia could help in the search for a solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. All participants in the six-party talks are agreeable to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. One of Pyongyang’s key concerns is a security assurances against attack from the U.S.

Mongolia’s creative attempt to protect a nation sandwiched between two giants might provide a starting point for Korea, which has traditionally seen itself as a shrimp among whales.

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