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North Korean diplomats break the ice with U.S. in Finland

Mar 21,2018
North Korean diplomats met with former South Korean and U.S. officials in talks facilitated by the Finnish government in Helsinki on Monday.

These “track 1.5 talks" which run through Wednesday, so called because they involve current North Korean officials and former U.S. and South Korean ones, are seen as a venue for involved parties to test waters before a planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, and a landmark meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in May.

About 18 diplomats, experts and former officials from the two Koreas and the United States broke the ice over dinner at a restaurant in downtown Helsinki on Monday evening under strict security.

Choe Kang-il, a senior diplomat handling North American affairs in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, led his six-person delegation into meetings with American and South Korean figures, just two days after North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho ended three days of talks with his Swedish counterpart in Stockholm.

The flurry of diplomatic meetings could help lay the groundwork for the upcoming summits, especially the meeting between Trump and Kim, in which the location and agenda have yet to be determined.

The American delegation reportedly included two former ambassadors to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens and Thomas Hubbard. They were joined by prominent Korea experts Robert Carlin, former chief of the Northeast Asia division in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research; John Delury, a Chinese studies professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies; and Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative at Stanford University.

Hubbard, who served in Seoul from 2001 to 2004, was a principal negotiator on the 1994 Agreed Framework in Geneva, where the North agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for nonmilitary reactors, economic aid and improved relations with the United States. He also led the first senior-level U.S. government delegation to North Korea that same year to secure the release of a captured American Army pilot.

The South Korean delegation included Shin Kak-soo, a former ambassador to Japan and former vice foreign minister; Shin Jung-seung, a former ambassador to China; Baek Jong-chun, who served as national security adviser under President Roh Moo-hyun; Jo Dong-ho, president of the Institute for National Security Strategy; Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University; and Kim Joon-hyung, an international studies professor at Handong Global University who specializes in Korea-U.S. relations. The dinner meeting was said to have lasted just under three hours. South Korean media outlets reported that North Korean officials were trusting of Seoul in discussions about their summit but approached the topic of the U.S. meeting with caution.

The semi-officials talks will take place over Tuesday and Wednesday in Helsinki. Finland’s foreign minister, Timo Soini, told the Finnish news agency STT on Monday that Finland “is making this meeting possible” by helping arrange it as a facilitator, but said it would not mediate in actual negotiations.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, following her talks with North Korea’s Minister Ri, said on Monday that the release of three Americans detained in North Korea should not be a condition for the planned summit between Trump and Kim, Reuters reported. “This is not a time to put up a lot of conditions and preconditions,” she said. Sweden often plays the role of mediator between Pyongyang and Washington because the United States does not have formal diplomatic ties with the North.

Wallstrom spoke on the sidelines of a European Union foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels that was also attended by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. The two ministers discussed Wallstrom’s meeting with Ri on Sunday.

Kang, who flew from a diplomatic mission in Washington last week, also attended a luncheon meeting of the EU Foreign Council on Monday to explain the recent momentum for engagement on the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul has been relishing its role as a diplomatic matchmaker, arranging a marathon of meetings to prepare for the summits. Chung Eui-yong, head of the Blue House National Security Office, returned to Seoul on Tuesday after concluding a trilateral meeting in San Francisco with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts H.R. McMaster and Shotaro Yachi over the weekend.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, eluded questions on Monday about whether Washington had any direct or indirect contact with the North Koreans, telling the press pool, “I’m not going to go into details on the internal U.S. government preparations, but I will say that this is a comprehensive approach in support of the president, and we’re continuing to move forward with those conversations.”

Addressing whether the Trump administration has been asking Congress to hold off on further sanctions to avoid inflaming the situation, Sanders said, “We’re continuing to ask our allies to engage in that maximum pressure campaign not to let up at any point for any reason until we see real progress on the promises that have been made by the North Koreans.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]