TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Finland’s government said Wednesday that delegates from North Korea, South Korea and the United States concluded “constructive” unofficial diplomatic talks in the Nordic country that were widely believed to be laying the groundwork for an upcoming meeting between the Koreas and a planned U.S.-North Korea summit.
The Finnish foreign ministry said in a brief statement said that the tripartite talks were held in a positive atmosphere and were aimed at “building confidence and reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
Many observers believe the Finland meeting was geared toward preparing an upcoming summit between the leaders of the Koreas and a planned meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Eighteen delegates, six from each country, plus observers from the United Nations and Europe attended the secretive two-day talks at a 19th-century manor house just outside Helsinki. The gathering kicked off Monday evening with a joint-dinner at a Helsinki restaurant where the delegations were seen arriving.
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Media were largely kept in the dark about the identities of the delegates and issues on the table, apart from Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini saying Tuesday that denuclearization wasn’t on the agenda.
What is known, however, is that senior North Korean diplomat Choe Kang Il, who handles North American affairs for his government, was among delegates from Pyongyang, while the U.S. delegation is believed to have included Kathleen Stephens, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
It was the first in a series of planned meetings between the Koreas and the U.S. involving unofficial talks between current and former officials, and academics. The meetings are likely to be important for establishing summit expectations and possibly even agenda items.
The Helsinki talks took place just a few days after North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho concluded separate diplomatic talks in neighboring Sweden on Saturday.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Monday that his country, which has a long history of hosting international summits, received a request to host the meeting “through middlemen.”
“We’re happy to host it and hope that discussions can bring issues forward,” he told reporters before the talks.
Senior South Korean officials who recently visited North Korea’s capital said that Kim agreed to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April. They said Kim also proposed meeting with Trump.
Trump then agreed to meet Kim by the end of May. North Korea has yet to confirm talks with the U.S., but its official media on Tuesday carried a commentary saying there “has been a sign of change” in U.S.-North Korean relations.
The developments have raised hopes for a potential breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis. But many experts say tensions could flare again if the summits fail to make progress, leaving the nuclear issue with few diplomatic options.
The South Korean officials who traveled to North Korea said that Kim is willing to discuss the North’s nuclear weapons program.