UPDATED: North Korea views Norway’s social welfare state as a “success,” according to an expert on the isolated country. That may be why talks are reportedly going on in Oslo this week between representatives from North Korea and the US.
Both Chinese and South Korean diplomats have referred to the otherwise secret, “informal” talks, which have been reported by South Korean news bureau Yonhap, US-based UPI and TV Asahi in Japan, among other international media. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) picked up the reports on Tuesday and was leading morning newscasts by announcing that representatives for North Korea and the US were holding “conversations” in Oslo. Sweden’s ambassador to the UN later confirmed to Japanese TV that talks were going on and that Swedish authorities were also involved.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that similar talks, involving North Korean representatives and former US diplomats, took place in Switzerland and Malaysia last year. They were described as “half-official, half-civilian.”
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said he hoped the talks would “contribute positively” to relations between the US and North Korea, which have been severely strained for years and especially during the past few months.
Norway has hosted such talks before
NRK reported that the Norwegian government had not arranged the meeting but may nonetheless be hosting it and picking up the costs. Norway has a long track record of peace broking, and hosting talks in or around Oslo between, for example, the governments of the Philippines and Colombia and insurgents. It most famously hosted secret talks in Norway between the Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s.
Norway’s foreign ministry was staying mum on Tuesday, declining to comment on any questions regarding Norway’s early engagement in peace and reconciliation efforts. That’s standard procedure, according to the ministry.
Geir Helgesen, an expert on North Korea at the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies in Copenhagen, said he hoped reports of the talks were true. He claimed Norway is well-regarded in North Korea, and that can be an advantage for all involved.
“Norway has high status in North Korea along with the other Nordic countries,” Helgesen told NRK, “because we had and have diplomatic relations with North Korea. We were some of the first countries in the world that in fact established diplomatic relations with the country, even though we don’t have an embassy there, so we have been regarded as relatively neutral.” Norway and North Korea have also had a series of cultural and sports exchanges over the years.
Helgesen said the North Koreans are well aware of Norway’s strong alliance with the US, but “aren’t so unrealistic that they think Norway is 100 percent beholden to the US’ foreign policy. They also look at the Nordic countries with great sympathy, becuse they view our models for society as a success, as opposed to, for example, the US and others with hard-core liberalistic models.”
He called it “very positive” that talks may be going on in Norway, if somewhat surprising given the hard line taken against North Korea by the new, unpredictable US president, Donald Trump. At the same time, Trump hasn’t ruled out having a meeting with North Korea’s own unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un.
The talks are reportedly low-level, between civil servants from both the US and North Korea. As tensions between the two countries escalated in April, Pope Francis called for a third party to broker between the US and North Korea and mentioned Norway as a candidate.
Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Norwegian prime minister who now leads an Oslo-based peace center, told NRK that he hadn’t been involved in any talks and wasn’t privvy to them. “But I sincerely hope there can be talks between North Korean and American representatives,” Bondevik said. “I believe that the confrontational policies we’ve seen from both sides lately are literally dangerous for human life.”