STOCKHOLM -- North Korea's foreign minister met with his counterpart in Sweden on Friday as speculation grows about a possible meeting in the Scandinavian country between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At the same time, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who also plans to meet with Kim this spring, pledged Friday to maintain "maximum pressure" on his authoritarian regime and seek action on giving up his nukes, the White House said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom held what she called "good and constructive" talks with North Korea's Ri Yong Ho, though she refused to say as she left the Stockholm villa where the meeting took place whether she and Ri discussed a Trump-Kim meeting. The villa is near the embassies of South Korea and the United States.
"We'll see what happens next," Wallstrom said.
Wallstrom said earlier that Sweden hopes "we can use our role and also our contacts" to facilitate U.S.-North Korea interactions but stressed that it was up to the countries concerned to decide "which way we are going."
"We value this opportunity to arrange a meeting," she said without specifying to what she was referring.
Ri's surprise trip to Stockholm has taken on added significance because of the expectation that a Trump-Kim summit could defuse the tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry said Friday night that Ri and Wallstrom planned to meet again today and that a summary of their discussions would be provided afterward.
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.
Ri also held a brief meeting Friday with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. He has not made any public comments since he arrived Thursday in Stockholm.
Lofven, speaking at a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, did not directly answer a question about whether his country had Washington's support to organize talks with Pyongyang.
"We have always said we want to be a mediator that facilitates this process," Lofven said.
Trump has agreed to meet Kim by May. So far, North Korea has yet to comment publicly on what it hopes to gain from the talks.
Ri's visit to Stockholm, where he once served as a diplomat at the North Korean Embassy, has been shrouded in secrecy.
In a phone call with Moon, Trump reiterated his intention to meet Kim by the end of May, and the allied leaders "agreed that concrete actions, not words, will be the key to achieving permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," according to a White House statement.
They also agreed that a "brighter future is available for North Korea, if it chooses the right path," according to the White House.
Moon is to meet Kim in April, a prelude to what would be first U.S.-North Korean summit during seven decades of hostility since the 1950-53 Korean War. Preparations for the Trump-Kim summit, which was announced last week, were just beginning -- days after Trump fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
North Korea has yet to publicly confirm the summit plans, and the venue for the meeting remains up in the air, although Ri's rare visit to Sweden on Friday fueled speculation the Scandinavian nation might play host.
The CIA has emerged as the primary player in Trump's diplomatic opening to North Korea, conducting back-channel communications and taking a major role in planning Trump's coming meeting with Kim, several officials told The New York Times Friday.
The White House's decision to use intelligence, rather than diplomatic, channels in communicating with the North Koreans speaks to the influence of Mike Pompeo, the CIA director whom Trump chose to replace Tillerson. It also reflects the State Department's diminished role in preparing for the high-stakes encounter.
Pompeo, these officials said, already has been dealing with North Korean representatives through a channel that runs between the CIA and its North Korean counterpart, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. And he has been in close touch with the director of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, whom U.S. officials said brokered Kim's invitation to Trump.
The deep involvement of Pompeo, officials said, helps explain the timing of Tillerson's ouster. Trump, having decided to accept Kim's invitation to a meeting, wanted to have a secretary of state who was in lock step with his views, these people said.
Tillerson was an early advocate of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, pursuing it as part of his efforts to win the release of Americans detained there. But he often leaned too far ahead of Trump in his eagerness, most notably when the president publicly undercut him during one of Tillerson's trips to Beijing, tweeting that he was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man" -- referring to Kim.
Pompeo, a former Army officer and Republican congressman who has spoken about the possibility of regime change in North Korea, is viewed as more skeptical about engaging with Kim. It is not clear whether he advised the president in advance of his decision to accept the invitation to talk. But he is an astute reader of Trump's preferences, and even before his nomination as secretary of state had become a vocal defender of the meeting.
"President Trump isn't doing this for theater," he said last week on Fox News. "He's going to solve a problem."
Meanwhile Friday, the U.S. official left in charge of the State Department after Tillerson's departure faced a delicate diplomatic task: to keep America's key Asian allies on the same page over the outreach to Kim.
Deputy Secretary John Sullivan met separately with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea, the nation that broached the Trump-Kim summit, and Foreign Minister Taro Kono of Japan, whose nation is more skeptical about the sudden spirit of rapprochement.
Both nations host tens of thousands of U.S. forces and face a direct threat from North Korea's weaponry. But South Korea and Japan also have strained relations and different perspectives on the problem. Their foreign ministers will hold talks today in Washington.
Moon is a long-standing advocate of engagement with the North. He used the Winter Olympics his nation hosted last month to reach out to Pyongyang. Subsequently, South Korean officials met Kim last week and relayed to Washington that the North Korean leader was committed to "denuclearization" and willing to halt nuclear and missile tests, which tempted Trump to agree to talk.
Kang followed up Thursday with a lunch with Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and adviser. They also had met during the Olympics closing ceremony.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now appears the odd one out. He's forged close ties with Trump and been a staunch supporter of his campaign of "maximum pressure" on North Korea, primarily through economic sanctions. While he says he welcomes the dialogue with North Korea, he's adamant the pariah nation must take real steps toward giving up its nukes. He's to meet Trump in Washington next month.
James Schoff, a former Pentagon adviser on East Asia, said Japanese officials are unnerved by Trump's unpredictability and fear that the U.S. could reach a deal with Kim on long-range North Korean missiles that threaten the U.S. without addressing the shorter-range weapons that threaten Japan.
Although Schoff said there's no reason to think that such a divisive move is in the cards, the Japanese want to be informed and consulted on the summit plans.
"They want to keep up maximum pressure and make sure we don't cut their interests out in any deal," he said.
In a separate development, the United Nations detailed how North Korea gets around international sanctions designed to hobble the government and its nuclear weapons program.
Trump said after accepting the invitation to meet with Kim that sanctions would remain in place during any talks.
But the U.N. report released Friday shows just how difficult it is for governments to police North Korea and how widespread illicit trade with it is. The experts who compiled the report detailed violations across several countries, including Bulgaria, China, Germany, India, Burma, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Tanzania and Uganda.
The report shows that North Korea continues to sell commodities to U.N. member countries, even though sanctions prohibit such transactions. According to the panel, North Korea generated nearly $200 million between January and September 2017 by exporting "almost all the commodities prohibited in the resolutions."
Information for this article was contributed by Jan M. Olsen, David Keyton, Eric Talmadge, Frank Jordans, Matthew Pennington and Catherine Lucey of The Associated Press, and by Motoko Rich and Mark Landler of The New York Times.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom would not say whether she and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho discussed a location for a possible U.S.-North Korea meeting.
A Section on 03/17/2018
Print Headline: Sweden receives envoy of Kim's