Intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Nordic diplomacy is at work on the North Korean nuclear issue. Sweden and Finland are busy facilitating a high-level dialogue among major actors involved in the crisis.

Last Saturday, North Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Ri Yong-ho concluded three days of talks with his Swedish counterpart Margot Wallström in Stockholm. In another development, Choe Kang-il, deputy director for North American affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, is said to be engaged in informal discussions with former US and South Korean officials in Helsinki. Academic experts from the United States and South Korea complete the panel of this gathering.

Some view the flurry of meetings hosted by the two Nordic nations as preparatory work ahead of a possible summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests during Trump’s 14 months in office have worsened an already tense relationship with Washington.

After North Korean participation in the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea, tensions between the two conflicting parties have sensibly eased – with the blessing of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who should meet with Kim next month.

Swedish diplomatic action

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said talks between Wallström and Ri principally focused on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and the prospect of finding a peaceful solution to the current standoff between North Korea and the United States. Stockholm, as expected, urged Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile programs in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

Sweden recognized the North Korean regime in 1973, becoming the first European country to open a diplomatic channel with it. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as a liaison between the North Korean government and the US, Canada and Australia.

In particular, Stockholm provides consular assistance in North Korea to citizens of those three countries, which do not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Sweden is said to have mediated the release of imprisoned Westerners in the secretive state in the past.

During their meetings, Wallström and Ri dealt with the issue of American nationals detained by the North Korean regime, according to media reports.

Sweden, a member of the UN Security Council until the end of the year, is also part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, an international body established to oversee the armistice between the two Koreas, which are still technically at war.

Neutral status allows Stockholm to be a more trusted interlocutor for North Koreans than the European Union, of which it is a member state. In the past months, the EU has tried to play a more active role in the nuclear dispute between Washington and Pyongyang. The European bloc is concerned that North Korea could develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching Europe. This means it has a clear interest in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But the EU’s links to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, combined with massive arms sales to South Korea by major EU countries, make it a less credible mediator than the Swedish government in the eyes of the North Korean leadership.

Sweden is a robust arms exporter, with growing business in the Asia-Pacific region. It sold to South Korea US$60 million worth of weapons between 2013 and 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports. In the same period, Germany transferred to Seoul $1.2 billion worth of weaponry.

‘Superpowers’ in mediation

During the Cold War, Sweden and Finland were often the neutral venues for talks between American and Soviet officials. They are ready to host a Trump-Kim meeting in the future, but the most likely location for it is the Demilitarized Zone that divides the North and the South.

Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini recently said at a seminar on Nordic peace diplomacy that “mediation is among the strategic priorities of Finnish foreign policy.” Nordic countries just consider themselves “superpowers” in mediation.

Now, whether the Swedish and Finnish diplomatic contribution will really produce results is a matter of debate. The two countries do not expect to influence the final outcome of a potential US-North Korean dialogue. After her talks with Ri, Wallström made it clear that it is up to the concerned parties to find a way forward to the crisis.

However, if Trump and Kim actually hold a summit, and they reach an agreement, Nordic diplomacies could help foster its actual implementation. They have the expertise and international credibility for that job.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.