N. Korea-US working-level talks likely to kick off in Sweden

Posted on : 2019-10-03 16:32 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Pyongyang Foreign Ministry’s roving ambassador books flight to Stockholm for Oct. 3
North Korean Foreign Ministry Roving Ambassador Kim Myong-gil
North Korean Foreign Ministry Roving Ambassador Kim Myong-gil

Sweden is emerging as the likely venue for a preliminary meeting and working-level negotiations on denuclearization to be held by North Korea and the US on Oct. 4 and 5.

“My understanding is that the name of Foreign Ministry Roving Ambassador Kim Myong-gil [North Korea’s representative to the working-level talks] was included on a list of reservations for an Air China flight (CA911) for Stockholm leaving on the afternoon of Oct. 3,” said a foreign affairs source in Beijing on Oct. 2. The flight in question was scheduled to depart from Beijing Capital International Airport at 1:50 pm on Oct. 3.

No Air Koryo flights left Pyongyang on Oct. 2, while Flight JS251 was scheduled to depart Pyongyang at 10:15 am and arrive in Beijing at 11:35 am on Oct. 3. Based on that schedule, Kim was expected to arrive in Beijing on Oct. 3 and immediately transfer to the flight bound for Stockholm. The reservation list reportedly did not show anyone else accompanying Kim.

In a statement on Oct. 1, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said Pyongyang and Washington had “agreed to have preliminary contact on Oct. 4 and hold working-level negotiations on Oct. 5,” but did not disclose the location for the meeting. The US similarly did not mention where it would be taking place.

But Sweden has been seen since early on as a likely venue for the North Korea-US working-level talks. In addition to it having a North Korean embassy to allow for easy communication back home, a previous working-level meeting among senior South Korean, US, and Japanese representatives on the North Korean nuclear issue took place last Japanese in a resort facility on the outskirts of Stockholm, including then Vice Foreign Minister Choe, US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, and South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon. But with North Korea’s history of delegations abruptly changing their flights just before takeoff, the possibility of a last-minute switch to another negotiation site cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, the US signaled a cautious attitude on the working-level negotiations with North Korea in remarks on Oct. 1. Responding to questions from the press around three hours after Choe’s announcement that day, US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said, “I can confirm that US and [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] officials plan to meet within the next week.”

“I do not have further details to share on the meeting,” she added. Her vague reference to “within the next week” suggested some differences with North Korea, which specified exact dates.

Various analyses were suggested on the attitude from Washington. One possibility is that the two sides agreed on the date of the working-level negotiations as Choe announced, with only differences in wording during their announcements. Another is that it may have been influenced by a sense of pressure to produce results in the first working-level talks in the more than seven months since the two sides’ summit in Hanoi ended without results in late February.

“It seems like the US is being very cautious to avoid the working-level talks falling apart,” said a foreign affairs source in Washington. Some analysts also suggested the US was keeping in mind the possibility of problems in the preliminary contact stage that might lead to the working-level negotiations failing to happen.

By Jung In-hwan, Beijing correspondent, and Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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