North Korean Foreign Minister Heads to Sweden

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Sweden

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was on Thursday en route to Sweden, which represents US interests in Pyongyang, for talks with his Swedish counterpart Margot Wallstrom, the Scandinavian country's Foreign Ministry said.

The rare visit could be a first step toward a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"We can't rule out the possibility of a contact between the North and the US" during Ri's visit, a Beijing source told South Korea's Yonhap agency.

Swedish officials have said the Stockholm talks would focus on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and a possible Trump-Kim summit.

Ri and Wallstrom dined together at the foreign ministry on Thursday evening, then met again on Friday at Villa Bonnier, a lavish building used by the government for official functions which is located near the U.S. embassy.

The ministry said ahead of the North Korean diplomat's visit that his meetings with Wallstrom would focus on "Sweden's consular responsibilities as a protecting power for the United States, Canada and Australia", but also would address the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Niklas Swanstrom of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy said the meeting between the two foreign ministers would only be preliminary to higher-level talks but they could give an indication of North Korea's interests and demands.

Meanwhile, Japanese broadcaster TBS said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed North Korea in a telephone call on Friday.

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Lofven on Thursday said Sweden was "ready to" play a role if asked.

"But it must be the main players who decide, in that case, what role Sweden will have".

North Korea admitted in 2002 it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, and five of them returned to Japan.

Since Trump's surprise announcement last week that he was willing to meet Kim, speculation has mounted over what location might be chosen to host what would be the first-ever meeting between serving leaders of the two countries.

'We can not be naive and think that Sweden is going to resolve these problems, ' he said.

However, North Korea watchers should not be overly optimistic about the current tone. Kang and Tillerson were scheduled to meet on Friday.

Earlier this month, Trump thanked Lofven for Stockholm's efforts to negotiate the release of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested for stealing propaganda material during a 2016 trip to Pyongyang, but who died after returning home.

"This meeting will hopefully lead to clarity about what North Korea wants from a high-level meeting and what the time-frame is and what the conditions will be - for example, should there be any preliminary meetings", a source with knowledge of the situation said.

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