Why Trump Needs the Swedes in Pyongyang

For decades, Sweden has represented America’s interests in places where the United States has severed diplomatic ties.

Swedish guards participate in birthday celebrations for the king at the royal palace in Stockholm on April 30, 2015. (Ivan Da Silva/Getty Images)
Swedish guards participate in birthday celebrations for the king at the royal palace in Stockholm on April 30, 2015. (Ivan Da Silva/Getty Images)

As diplomats prepare for a high-stakes summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in May, Sweden could be a key actor in smoothing the way to the talks, including helping negotiate the release of three detained Americans.

The United States has no embassy or diplomatic relations with North Korea, so it often falls to Swedish diplomats to act as America’s messengers to the regime in Pyongyang. Sweden’s formal role is as the “protecting power” for the United States in North Korea, a neutral go-between for the two countries, which have never had diplomatic relations.

Neither the Swedish Embassy in Washington, State Department, nor White House provided comment on whether Sweden was involved in talks before the announcement of the upcoming summit or on Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Pyongyang. But former U.S. officials, Western diplomats, and former negotiators who have dealt with North Korea say Sweden is playing a part in talks to release three Americans, which could set the tone for more substantive diplomatic progress.

There are three American prisoners still in North Korea: Tony Kim, who had spent time teaching accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology; Kim Hak-song, who had been doing agricultural development work at that same university’s research farm; and Kim Dong-chul, a businessman. Their release might come as a goodwill gesture either before, during, or immediately after the much-anticipated summit.

“What I’m hearing: There is an effort through the Swedes to try to broker the return of the three American detainees who are in North Korea now,” says Mickey Bergman, who manages private diplomacy efforts in North Korea.

“It’s been suggested that a gesture like freeing the Americans would be something that would serve as a confidence builder,” says Stephen Noerper, a former senior State Department analyst and current adjunct associate professor of political science at Columbia University. “There’s no doubt that the Swedes have brought this up on behalf of the Americans.”

“Sweden is the United States’ protecting power, so they naturally make requests for us and have been doing so,” a senior Trump administration official says in response to a query on the release of the detained Americans.

Normally, a U.S. Embassy would provide services for Americans living in the host country, such as issuing passports or helping them leave the country if need be. But in its absence, that role falls to the protecting power, which in North Korea means the Swedish ambassador is the one who visits American detainees and who acts as a go-between in trying to secure their release.

The State Department did not comment on whether discussions of the three detainees’ release were underway.

Sweden, which recently hosted North Korea’s foreign minister for a three-day visit — as it had done many times before — has long served as an intermediary for countries that have severed diplomatic relations. In some cases, the situation comes about because the country serving as the protecting power has a unique relationship with the countries involved. (This is the case with the Czech Republic in Syria.)

In others, countries simply regarded as neutral powers, such as Sweden and Switzerland, serve in this role.

Sweden was a member of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which was established during the Korean War armistice and intended to be a neutral group that could enforce armistice. (Switzerland was also a member.) But Sweden, a neutral power during the Cold War, has had a unique relationship with North Korea for decades.

In 1973, Sweden was one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, notes Erik Brattberg, the director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The move was politically driven — Sweden was working with both the East and West — but also commercially motivated. “There were commercial interests for Swedish companies in the 1970s to engage North Korea,” Brattberg says.

In 1995, Sweden, which had an embassy in Pyongyang, became the protecting power for the United States. Six years later, in 2001, the Swedish prime minister became the first Western leader to visit North Korea.

Since Trump entered office, the Swedes have continued their work as America’s messenger in Pyongyang. Bergman says the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang managed to gain access to Otto Warmbier, the American university student who was imprisoned after he was caught trying to steal a sign, roughly two months into his detainment.

The Swedish ambassador kept trying to see him every week but was told he could not because Warmbier was a prisoner of war.

“Retroactively, we know that the reason he wasn’t granted that access was because Otto Warmbier at that point was already in a coma and the North Koreans did not want to reveal that,” Bergman says.

Warmbier, who was imprisoned when President Barack Obama was still in office and released after Trump had begun his tenure, died shortly after returning to the United States.

How much the Trump administration will call on the Swedes to help in Pyongyang in the lead-up to the talks is still unclear.

“The Swedes,” Bergman says, “are definitely willing, and trying, to leverage their access in Pyongyang.”

National security reporter Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin