In public, there have been threats and name-calling. But behind the scenes, there is some evidence that the United States and North Korea have been meeting—with little fanfare, in unofficial talks between low-level diplomats—in the small lakeside town of Montreux, Switzerland, less than a hour’s train ride from downtown Geneva.
It appears that the two sides have been taking up on an offer from the neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden to act as mediators—something which Swiss president Doris Leuthard had suggested very publicly earlier this month at a news conference, noted The Independent.
There has not been much coverage of the progress of any subsequent, tentative talks—which may be purposeful?—but some hints have cropped up now and again in smaller, local publications, such as an article that appeared in Swissinfo.ch on September 17. (If nothing else, one has to like the editorial cartoon that illustrated the article, which depicts Switzerland as a soccer official, refereeing Trump and Kim.)
But there is a solid logic behind the idea of the interested parties meeting on this turf: The Swiss and the Swedes can make a long-standing, formal claim to a role on the Korean Peninsula. A handful of Swiss and Swedish military personnel have technically supervised the cease-fire that ended the Korean War since the 1950s, as can be seen in this Reuters article and associated video clip “Cow bells in the DMZ: Swiss, Swedish generals uphold Korean truce their way.”
What’s more, the Swiss have a long history of mediating disputes, which has sometimes worked out rather well, as outsiders have opined. And it should be noted that the Swiss have not waged war in 500 years. (Though it’s a heavily-armed neutrality.) And nearby Geneva is the birthplace of the International Red Cross, the Geneva Conventions, and the League of Nations, as well as home to some 270 nongovernmental organizations devoted to such causes as world peace.
All of which sounds promising, as World Politics Review wrote earlier this week in “Are Switzerland and Sweden the Keys to Easing the North Korean Crisis?” The neutral countries’ role could involve simple shuttle diplomacy between the main powers to try to keep everyone on the same diplomatic page, or off-the-record efforts to limit the risks of an accidental escalation to war by Washington or Pyongyang.
As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, there are a number of theories about why North Korea is doing this. “The North Koreans are reaching out through various channels and through various counterparts,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official dealing with North Korea who is a frequent participant in such talks. “My own guess is that they are somewhat puzzled as to the direction in which the US is going, so they’re trying to open up channels to take the pulse in Washington,” Revere said. “They haven’t seen the United States act like this before.”
Coincidentally, there’s another link between North Korea and this part of the world: As a teenager, Kim Jong-un attended a Swiss boarding school little more than an hour’s drive inland from Montreux. Apparently, he was an avid basketball player, who enjoyed his PlayStation and James Bond movies, “a fairly quiet guy who never really talked much about his home country or politics…” recollected one of his classmates in the 2010 Sunday Daily Telegraph article “My happy days at school with North Korea’s future leader.”
Though it remains to be seen if Kim Jong-un’s cheery memories of high school and fondue will be enough to defuse the situation.
But it’s certainly a better omen than the other thing Montreux is famous for: When the village’s local casino caught fire during a music festival in the early 1970s, the sight of the billowing inferno reflecting on the lake inspired the rock band Deep Purple to record what became a well-known song. Appropriately enough, the opening lyrics go: “We all came to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline…. Some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground. Smoke on the water, fire in the sky.”