Swedes keep room ready for US diplomats in Pyongyang

By ERIC TALMADGE | Mon, March 25, 2019 08:52 EDT

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Swedish diplomats are keeping a room ready for the U.S. to use if it ever decides to have an official presence in the North Korean capital.

The unmarked, slightly musty room next to the Swedish ambassador's office in Pyongyang's diplomatic quarter has been kept in an odd state of limbo for years.

On one shelf sits an issue of the Pyongyang Times from the days of detente between the late leader Kim Jong Il and President Bill Clinton. The top shelf is taken up by a newer edition — with a photo of the North's current leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump on its front page.

The room has more or less remained in this condition since a 1995 agreement that provided for the Swedes to serve as Washington's "protective power" in North Korea. There were a lot of talks going on between the U.S. and North Korea at the time and it seemed like a good idea to prepare some sort of a foothold since the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with the North and thus no embassy of its own.

With the U.S. and North Korea engaged in the most serious talks since those years, the possibility of actually giving the little room an American tenant has returned to the negotiating table.

A proposal to establish a liaison office in Pyongyang was floated ahead of the first summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore last June. Trump seemed to support it again as he sat down for talks with Kim at the second summit, in Vietnam last month, though the meeting ended without any significant agreements.

"It's actually not a bad idea," Trump said as the two faced each other across the negotiating table.

"I think that is something that could be welcomed," Kim replied through an interpreter.

The room at the embassy, which The Associated Press was allowed to see but for security reasons not photograph, would be used as an "interest section" for the United States.

In diplomat speak, that would make it one step below a liaison office, which is one step below an actual embassy.

They are generally set up between countries that don't formally recognize each other and have tense relations but require some form of working contact.

Like the one described in the agreement with Sweden, interest sections are normally established in the embassy of a third country that has diplomatic relations with both sides. The U.S. has maintained interest sections in places like Cuba during the Cold War and Iran.

South Korea is already moving ahead with the idea — it opened a liaison office of its own last September in the North Korean city of Kaesong. But even for Seoul, it hasn't been a smooth process. The North announced last week that it was withdrawing its staff from the office, but didn't say whether the withdrawal would be temporary or permanent. The Koreas previously used telephone and fax-like communication channels that were often shut down in particularly tense times.

Washington and Pyongyang have agreed to open liaison offices before.

Lynn Turk, a U.S. official involved in talks to exchange offices in 1994, wrote in a recent article for the 38 North website that the plan was for each to have up to seven people. The physical space was to increase as the relationship expanded, with the goal being an exchange of embassies and ambassadors.

North Korean officials, he wrote, toured office space in Washington and housing alternatives in Washington and northern Virginia. The North Koreans were concerned about the cost of renting and were "pleased by the lower costs and larger housing in the D.C. area," though they indicated they would probably opt for housing in northern Virginia.

The talks were put on indefinite hold in 1995.

One of the big hurdles to talks is the fact that North Korea and the United States are technically at war — the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The previous discussions ran into problems over how the American or Americans would be allowed to get in and out of the country. A suggestion that they should be allowed to come across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South was rejected by the North Koreans.

There are other, smaller problems as well.

Pyongyang doesn't have a big foreign diplomatic presence.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang — along with the British Embassy — is located on the premises of the German Embassy. Setting up an interest section wouldn't necessarily require major changes in that arrangement, but under the current agreement Sweden would no longer be responsible for U.S. interests once a liaison office is established.

So, with no Trump properties in North Korea yet, the U.S. might need to find a new landlord.

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Talmadge, the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013, is the only American journalist working regularly in North Korea.

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