Tokyo and Ulaanbaatar sign deal to cut duties, agree on mediation with Pyongyang
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Mongolian President Elbegdorj ink free trade pact to boost bilateral trade, mostly cars and beef. The deal is also inspired by a desire to get Mongolia to help in North Korean-Japanese relations. Former Communist nation is playing an increasingly important diplomatic role.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - After North Korea and China, Mongolia is boosting diplomatic and trade agreements with Japan, developing a role as neutral referee in Northeast Asia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj signed the new free trade deal yesterday in Tokyo. Japanese carmakers and Mongolian farmers will benefit from a substantial cut on import duties.

The numbers are relatively small. In 2013, Japanese exports to Mongolia reached US$ 285 million (mostly cars), whilst Mongolian exports to Japan hovered around US$ 20 million.

Mongolian beef, a direct competitor with Japan's prized Kobe beef carried a 38 per cent tax until today. With the new deal, the duty will drop by almost 20 percentage points.

However, the real purpose of the bilateral meeting was to get Mongolia to mediate between North Korea and Japan.

Ulaanbaatar has increasingly important diplomatic relations with Pyongyang (its president was the first head of state to make an official visit to the young dictator Kim Jong-un), and Tokyo needs Mongolia to mediate on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abe asked Elbegdorj for greater cooperation on the issue, which he cannot carry out alone with the right resolve for political reasons.

For his part, the Mongolian President said that he would "do everything" to find out what happened to the Japanese citizens abducted because of their technical and scientific knowledge on the orders of the then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.

A faithful US ally caught between Russia and China, Mongolia has experienced significant growth in recent years thanks to the mining sector.

The recent discovery of deposits of coal, copper and gold has in fact pushed the country's economy to very high levels, whilst increasing inflation.

Thanks to its almost untapped mining resources, Ulaanbaatar has launched a new diplomatic strategy.

Without turning its back on Washington, it has signed trade agreements with Beijing to develop its mining resources and has offered its services to mediate regional disputes.

Elbergdorj's election in June 2013 confirmed this strategy.