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North Korea’s Sweden visit prompts speculation on US summit

Ri Yong-ho (R) and his delegation in Stockholm, Sweden (15 March 2018)Image copyrightEPA
Image caption Ri Yong-ho (right) arrived in Sweden late on Thursday with his delegation

North Korea’s foreign minister is in Sweden for a surprise visit, ahead of a possible meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Pyongyang said Ri Yong-ho’s trip was for “bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern”.

Sweden has a long history of mediating between Washington and Pyongyang.

North Korea’s Sweden visit prompts speculation on US summit
North Korea’s Sweden visit prompts speculation on US summit

So the visit has prompted speculation it might be part of preparations for the US-North Korea summit.

Donald Trump last week accepted an invitation for direct talks with Mr Kim, a shock announcement from the two leaders who have traded threats and insults for months.

There has been no official word from North Korea since the invitation was delivered via South Korean officials in Washington.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told his country’s news agency TT that “if the main actors want Sweden to play a role then we are ready to do that”.

“We are a country that is militarily non-aligned and have a longstanding presence in North Korea, and with the trust we enjoy we think we can play a role. But it has to be the main actors who decide which role Sweden will play.”

Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Gearing up for the summit of the decade?

The US said it was aware of the meeting in Stockholm, but did not know whether it was related to any US-North Korean talks.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that the US had yet to hear directly from Pyongyang on the planned summit.

No sitting US president has ever met a North Korean leader.

Such a summit, which Pyongyang has long wanted, has previously been seen as possible only after major concessions from the North Koreans.

North Korea’s defiant nuclear and missile programme has led to severe international sanctions against Pyongyang in the hope they would force the regime to abandon its military threats.

Talks to prepare talks?

The plans for the meeting between Mr Trump and the North Korean leader took the world by surprise last Friday.

It followed a year of heated rhetoric between North Korea and the US, and growing global concern that the hostilities might escalate into military confrontation.

In the invitation relayed by South Korean officials, Mr Kim said he was “committed to denuclearisation”.

However uncertainty remains over what would be a landmark summit. It is not yet clear:

  • Where the talks will take place. North Korea and the US are considered unlikely. More likely places are the border between the two Koreas, China, a neutral country – like Sweden – or international waters
  • What North Korea wants in exchange for the meeting and for promising denuclearisation
  • Whether the offer from Pyongyang is serious or just intended as a propaganda boost
  • Whether the summit will ultimately take place at all

Uncertainty over the summit has also been fuelled by the departure of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who was seen as a moderating voice favouring diplomacy over military threats.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption North Korea’s military threat has worried the world for decades

Sweden has had longstanding ties with North Korea, and its embassy in Pyongyang was one of the first Western diplomatic missions in North Korea in the 1970s.

As the US has no embassy in North Korea, Sweden has in the past acted as its diplomatic representative in the authoritarian state.

Sweden, which is not a NATO member, has for instance helped with the release of US citizens held by the North.

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