North Korea’s top diplomat flew to Sweden for a surprise visit on Thursday, fueling speculation that the trip will lay the groundwork for a proposed summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, and even that the Scandinavian country could be the host.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was seen at Beijing International Airport on Thursday, along with Choi Kang-il, a senior North Korean diplomat responsible for U.S. affairs, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. The visit comes just a week after Trump’s surprise announcement that he was prepared to accept Kim’s invitation to a face-to-face meeting to discuss the nuclear issue.
The Swedish government issued a statement confirming that Ri was en route for two days of talks with his Swedish counterpart, Margot Wallström. The talks would “focus on Sweden’s consular responsibilities as a protecting power for the United States, Canada, and Australia” according to the statement. “They will also address the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Days earlier, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had spoken of his willingness to help facilitate talks between the United States and North Korea.
“If we can help in any way, we will do it,” he said at a press conference on Saturday. He told Sweden’s TT news agency that his government’s rare relationship with Pyongyang put officials in an ideal place to act as a go-between.
“The fact that we are a protecting power for the U.S., have been at the border since the 1950s and have had an embassy in Pyongyang since the start of the 1970s has given us a relationship with North Korea in which we feel they trust us,” Löfven said.
Sweden, which has had diplomatic relations with Pyongyang since 1973, is one of the few Western countries with an embassy in North Korea. The country has long acted as an intermediary between North Korea and the U.S., which have no diplomatic relationship.
In its capacity as a “protecting power,” Sweden provides consular services for Americans who encounter problems when visiting the isolated dictatorship.
The U.S. and South Korea had been involved in Sweden’s preparations for the talks between Ri and Wallström, Sweden’s newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported. Sweden has also been rumored as a possible site for the summit between Kim and Trump, along with the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas; China; and Switzerland, a historically neutral country where Kim was educated.
Following months of escalating rhetoric over the North’s nuclear ambitions, Trump’s announcement left diplomats with little time to prepare for the historic summit, scheduled for May. Trump’s firing of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State this week has threatened to throw preparations into disarray.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha traveled to Washington on Thursday for State Department meetings aimed at keeping preparations for the summit on track, despite the recent changes at the top of the department, the New York Times reported.
Cover image: A woman walks by a huge screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Tokyo, Friday, March 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.