STOCKHOLM — North Korea's foreign minister is traveling to Sweden Thursday, a surprise move that could be a first step toward a meeting in the Scandinavian country between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Ri Yong Ho who is scheduled to land in Stockholm later in the day, will meet Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said. It was not immediately clear when or where they would meet.
Talks “will focus on Sweden's consular responsibilities as a protecting power for the United States, Canada and Australia,” the ministry said in a statement, but they also will address the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Sweden has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since 1973, and is now one of the few Western countries to have an embassy in Pyongyang. It provides consular services for the U.S. in North Korea.
“The aim of the visit is to contribute to the effective implementation of the resolutions,” the ministry said, referring to the condemnation of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs by the U.N. Security Council.
It said the United Nations had “emphasized the need for intensified diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.”
“If the key actors want Sweden to play a role, facilitate (talks), be a forum or a link or whatever it may be, then we are prepared to do that,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told Sweden's TT news agency.
“We shouldn't be naive and believe it is Sweden that solves these problems,” Lofven said.
Niklas Swanstrom of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy said such a meeting would only be preliminary to higher-level talks but they could give an indication of what North Korea's interests and demands may be.
“The assumption is of course that (they) will speak a bit about the proposed talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Swanstrom told The Associated Press, noting relations between the two Koreas “have improved significantly” in recent weeks.
He said he did not expect the announcement of a date or location for a Trump-Kim meeting.
The Swedish ministry said a statement summarizing the talks will be made available Friday.
Trump has agreed to meet Kim by May.
Swedish media say that a North Korean delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol paid a visit to Stockholm in late January and briefly met with Lofven and Wallstrom.
Ri, a former diplomat in Stockholm and London, and an ex-nuclear envoy with broad experience in negotiating with rivals South Korea and the United States, was tapped as Pyongyang's foreign minister in 2016.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month, he urged the United Nations not to remain silent about what he called “the U.S. dangerous game of aggravating (the) situation in and around the Korean peninsula and driving the whole world into a possible disaster of nuclear war.”
The trip by Ri is being closely watched because there remains a huge amount of preparation that needs to be done and relatively little time before Kim is supposedly planning to sit down for summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump.
So far, North Korea has yet to publicly comment on what it hopes to gain from the summits, adding an extra element of mystery and skepticism.
Senior South Korean officials who traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month and met with Kim say he is willing to discuss the North's nuclear weapons program. It could suggest a potential breakthrough, or a fallback to the North's longstanding position that it's willing to get rid of its nuclear weapons if the United States guarantees its safety.
In the past, that has meant Washington would have to withdraw all of its troops from South Korea, a condition no U.S. president has been willing to consider.
Sweden has been rumored as a possible site for the summit between Kim and Trump, though a truce village on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas is seen as more likely.