Sweden is in a unique position among Western countries when it comes to North Korea. The Scandinavian country has a long history of being the middleman between the West and its adversaries, a role it played successfully during both World War 2 and the Cold War. In fact, it was Sweden’s intermediary position during the Cold War and its membership in Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission established to oversee the Korean Armistice, that laid the foundations for the country’s role in North Korea today, as it was one of the first to open an embassy in Pyongyang in 1973. Later on, in 1996, it became a protecting power for the United States, protecting Washington’s interests in North Korea. Two countries regularly exchange state visits and Swedish prime minister was the first Western leader to visit Pyongyang in 2001, while North Korea’s foreign minister visited Stockholm in March.
In practice, that means that all official negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong Un, including the ones discussing the release of the US citizens from North Korea’s prison, are going through Swedish diplomats. Swedish ambassador wanted to visit Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea for trying to steal a propaganda poster in 2016. The ambassador was denied access with various excuses, which were later revealed as a ploy to keep the fact that Warmbier was in a coma. He was released eventually but died shortly after returning home.
Hopefully, the fate of the current captives won’t be so grim. North Korea currently imprisons three American citizens, Tony Kim, an accounting professor at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Kim Hak-song, an agricultural expert working at the same university, and Kim Dong-chul, a businessman. Releasing these three men may signal goodwill on the part of the Pyongyang and the willingness of the county’s leadership to enter negotiations.
Mickey Bergman, who manages private diplomacy efforts in North Korea says that his sources confirm that initial contacts between Swedish embassy and Pyongyang officials have been made. “What I’m hearing: There is an effort by the Swedes to try to broker the return of the three American detainees who are in North Korea now,” he said.
Such requests would be a prevue of the US embassy, but in North Korea, it has fallen to Sweden to look after the prisoners’ well-being and protect their interests. Many experts agree that releasing the three Americans would be an excellent way for Pyongyang to gain some international confidence in the upcoming summit.