A senior North Korean diplomat is in Finland this week for closed-door talks that could help smooth the way for a summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Choe Kang-il, the Deputy Director for North American Affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry was spotted in Beijing airport on Sunday, boarding a flight to Helsinki.
The Finnish Foreign Ministry confirms the talks, describing Finland’s role as a ‘facilitator’ rather than a participant. Finnish officials say the talks are purely academic, but analysts say these type of discussions help North Korea weigh up reaction to possible summit overtures from their side to the Americans and South Koreans.
The Foreign Ministry’s Director General for Asia Kimmo Lähdevirta says he can’t disclose where exactly the talks are taking place; who the participants are; or what’s on the agenda. However, other sources claim to know the inside scoop.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports the Finnish government will host a dinner on Monday night for delegates from America, North and South Korea.
Talks would then continue on Tuesday and Wednesday with 18 participants, six from each country.
Yonhap reports the American side includes two former ambassadors to South Korea as well as several American academics.
The South Korean delegation reportedly includes former ambassadors to Japan and China, and academics.
“Basically these talks provide a forum for discussing sensitive issues and floating ideas in an unofficial capacity. Participants usually stress that the meetings aren’t a substitute for official negotiations, but they can be used to indirectly exchange back-channel messages and inform decision-making” explains Kim Gamel, an American journalist based in Seoul.
The meeting is described by Korea-watchers as ‘Track 1.5 talks’, which means they bring together current government representatives, former officials and academics. Lower level meetings known as ‘Track 2 talks’ wouldn’t include current government representatives.
America’s CNN news channel is reporting that the Helsinki discussions will focus on denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula.
Antti Leppänen, at the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku says economic sanctions, especially from China, might have softened North Korea’s resolve and forced them to engage again with international talks.
“They now want to extend their hand to South Korea, and also the US […] a semi-official or even official acknowledgement that the country is a nuclear weapons state could be their goal” says Leppänen.
Trump – Kim Summit
In March, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he would meet President Kim at a summit in April or May. It would be an historic first meeting between leaders of the two countries but no details about summit plans have emerged so far.
Since then there has been speculation about where the meeting might take place. Sweden has emerged as a possible location, but a venue in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is considered more likely.
“North Korea hasn’t commented on the summit since Trump agreed to it” says Seoul-based journalist Kim Gamel.
“In this case we see a flurry of diplomatic activity with the Finland talks and the weekend meetings in Sweden with the North Korean foreign minister. That raises speculation that it’s part of preparations for the expected Trump-Kim summit” she says.
Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA, Teija Tiilikainen, says that careful groundwork needs to be laid before any summit meeting, because it will be so high profile.
“Because the meeting is of enormous importance, it must be prepared so that the opportunities are used as well as possible. If the meeting goes wrong, there may not be a second chance” she says.
Nordic Links To North Korea
The Helsinki talks come at a moment when the Nordic region is in the North Korea spotlight.
Over the weekend, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho met his Swedish counterpart Margot Wallström in Stockholm, where Ri once served as ambassador.
The pair discussed the fate of several Americans imprisoned in the north, where Sweden acts as America’s consular representative. The Swedes have had an embassy in Pyongyang since the mid-1970s and have often acted as a conduit between the USA and North Korea.
By contrast, Finland doesn’t have an embassy in Pyongyang, and Director General Kimmo Lähdevirta describes relations between the two countries as “pretty thin” due in large part to a lack of bilateral trade.
“At this time for example our present ambassador in Seoul hasn’t presented his credentials in Pyongyang yet” Lähdevirta tells News Now Finland.
“In normal circumstances they would visit every now and then, but lately there hasn’t been any visits from the ambassador to Pyongyang” he adds.