As unlikely as it may seem, the Nordic nation of Sweden could be key in getting a potential meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un off the ground. And it all dates back to the 1970s and 1,000 Volvo cars.
Ever since the White House earlier this month announced that Trump, via South Korean envoys, had received - and accepted - an invitation by Kim to meet, the focus has been on the what’s, when’s and where’s. The summit is meant to discuss the future of the embattled regime’s nuclear and missile programme.
One thing seems to be clear, however. Sweden – which has longstanding diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and also serves as a Protective Power for Americans needing consular help there – has offered its services, and the tiny Scandinavian nation could be key for a successful Kim and Trump encounter.
"If we can use our contacts [in North Korea] in the best way, we will do so," Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said this weekend of the summit, while hosting North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and his delegation for a rare three-day visit to the Swedish capital. The North Korean delegation also met with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven who expressed hope that his country could serve as a “facilitator” in the run-up to the potentially historic Trump and Kim meet-up.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Bjorn Jerden, the head of the Asia program at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, explained that Sweden’s position as a Pyongyang-Washington “facilitator” has been forged through some rare, and at times almost clumsy, decisions made several decades ago.
“Today we have closer [diplomatic] ties with North Korea than other Western nations,” he said.
Volvo’s on credit
While Sweden stayed neutral during the 1950-1953 Korean war, making sure to maintain relations with both sides, its real diplomatic ties with the reclusive state date back to 1973, when it became the first Western country to recognise North Korea as an independent state. The reasons leading up to the unusual decision were plentiful: While Sweden’s left argued that their nation ought to have diplomatic relations with all of the world’s countries, whether US-friendly or not, the Swedish business elite smelt investment opportunities in North Korea’s fast-paced – but alas short-lived - industrialisation.
In 1975, the Swedish government, along with some of Sweden’s largest companies – including both carmaker Volvo and industrial group Atlas Copco - organised a huge industrial fair in Pyongyang, during which it was announced that the hermit state had placed orders for roughly SEK1 billion (€100 million) worth of Swedish-made goods. One of the deals covered the delivery of 1,000 Volvo cars – many of which can still be seen rolling down the communist regime’s streets today. On the sidelines of the fair, Sweden also announced the opening of its Pyongyang embassy, becoming the first Western country to establish a diplomatic mission there.
Sweden’s business dealings with North Korea soon soured, however, due to Pyongyang’s inability to pay for its many Swedish purchases.
“The problems are related to the North Koreans not being used to international trade and the rules that apply to that. In a short period of time, they have made big purchases abroad,” the Swedish ministry for industry told daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 1975.
Even to this day, North Korea still owes Sweden hundreds of millions. However, the diplomatic relationship has remained more or less intact.
‘Little man on high heels’
In 2001, the Stockholm-Pyongyang ties were reconfirmed as Sweden’s then prime minister, Goran Persson, led an EU delegation to North Korea, becoming the first Western leader to officially visit the reclusive state.
During his visit, he met with Kim Jong-un’s father predecessor, Kim Jong-il.
“In comes this little man on fairly high heels wearing some sort of sporty outfit, very upbeat and a bit bossy. He felt very ordinary. All this talk about him being someone not right in the head, a drugged-out porn-obsessed type of guy not capable of reasoning about political development shouldn’t be regarded,” Persson said in a documentary about his career.
“If it was Kim Jong-il we met, I mean. You don’t know that for sure.”
According to Jerden, Sweden’s neutrality during the Korean War is a main factor in why it has managed to maintain its diplomatic dealings with the country to this day.
“If you think about at it, the Korean War is still the main reason for the problems we have today,” he said, pointing to North Korea's nuclear arms ambitions and the US’s continued military presence in South Korea.
“For North Korea, it’s a threat against its existence,” he said.
Sweden also has a military presence in South Korea, albeit in another, less threatening, manner: A handful of Swedish soldiers still help man the Korean border as part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission tasked with maintaining the ceasefire which in 1953 ended the armed hostilities between the two Koreas.
“Note that it’s just a ceasefire, technically they [the two Koreas] are still at war. And so it’s very tense,” Jerden said.
Due to its longstanding diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, Jerden said that Sweden has managed to forge a very special negotiating position with the North Koreans too, especially when representing other states in its role as a Protective Power. Aside from the US, Sweden has consular responsibility also for Australia and Canada as well as its Nordic and Baltic neighbours.
Last year, Sweden was credited with helping the US negotiate the release of American student Otto Warmbier, who in 2016 was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for reportedly stealing a political banner in a hotel. While incarcerated, he fell into a coma and died shortly after returning to the US.
Sweden in 2017 also contributed to the release of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who in 2015 had been sentenced to life of hard labour for allegedly plotting to overthrow the North Korean regime.
While meeting with the North Korean delegation in Stockholm over the weekend, CNN reported that the Swedish government had “engaged heavily” on behalf of three Americans that are currently in North Korean detention.
Jerden said that if the Swedes can help tip the scale on this particular issue, and in particular their release, it will mean a lot for the upcoming talks between Trump and Kim.
“It will show goodwill on behalf of North Korea,” he said. “It would be symbolic and it would be a feather in the cap for Trump, where he can say that this [negotiating] is the way to go.”
North Korea has yet to publicly confirm that it has sent the invitation to Trump, however.
Speculation has run wild over the venue for the summit, with rumours tapping Norway, Switzerland, and of course – Sweden – as potential locations. But Jerden said the demilitarised zone in between the two Koreas is a more likely venue.
“Kim hasn’t made an official trip abroad since he came to power seven years ago, so I don’t think he’s interested in travelling that far.”