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Swedish channel is favored in US-North Korea talks

Amid the brouhaha of Olympics diplomacy in PyeongChang, Sweden – a country thousands of miles from the Korean Peninsula – has been thrust into the media limelight. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström earlier said that Stockholm would be willing to host the North Korea-US talks. With Stockholm playing the role of a communication channel, Washington and Pyongyang are groping for more interactions.

By – Li Jiacheng 

Sweden has multiple identities – permanently neutral state, non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – and also has diplomatic relations with North Korea. Therefore, it is eligible to act as an intermediary in negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

Sweden follows the diplomatic policy of “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.” The country declared neutrality in the two world wars, and is a member state of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. Its adherence to neutrality has won Sweden trust of both the US and North Korea.

Sweden established an embassy in Pyongyang in 1975 and has earned the trust of North Korea. Through its embassy, Sweden represents consular interests of the US, Canada, Australia and Nordic countries. In other words, the Scandinavian country has the right to protect US, Canadian, Australian and Nordic citizens in North Korea. It was for this reason that Wallström persuaded her North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho to release the three Americans held in the country during Ri’s recent visit to Sweden.

In addition, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Sweden insists on addressing the Korean Peninsula issue in a peaceful way and vows to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and security on the peninsula. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has underlined the need for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs in line with Security Council resolutions.

Stockholm reiterated that it’s willing to help and provide a forum for US-North Korea talks. Wallström said earlier that her country stands ready to assist Washington and Pyongyang in moving forward a historic dialogue.

Moreover, Sweden, together with China, the truce village of Panmunjom, Switzerland and Mongolia are believed to be candidate sites for a meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The US and North Korea have been keeping the “New York Channel” alive. Usually it would take more than six months to prepare for a summit. But given the pressing circumstances, the two countries have to turn to the Swedish channel.

During his visit to Sweden on March 15-16, Ri held talks with Wallström on a number of issues including diplomatic efforts to address the North Korean nuclear crisis, sanctions, the release of the Americans, in preparation for the Trump-Kim summit.

Besides, North Korea, the US and South Korea held track 1.5 talks in Finland this week. Choe Kang-il, a deputy director general for North American affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, attended the event. He met with former US diplomats including former US ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens and scholars. The dialogue explored the possibility of direct US-North Korea interaction in the future.

North Korean media outlets didn’t give significant coverage to the Swedish mediation effort and there were no reports about the planned Trump-Kim talks on North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun. Pyongyang is still skeptical of a summit with Washington, something understandable given the complexity of the issue.

Given the Swedish mediation effort, Sweden has been widely speculated as the place for the Trump-Kim meeting, but Kim may not agree to it. Travelling to Sweden would be a problem as it will take Kim a long time to reach Stockholm by train and the Kim family is known not to fly. In addition, given its long geopolitical distance from Sweden, security assurance and the stability of the government would be a test for North Korea.

The final venue of US-North Korea summit needs deliberations. If the US and North Korea propose China to be the host, Beijing will be very willing to do so. China, as a main venue for Six-Party Talks, has abundant experience in holding meetings on the peninsula crisis.

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