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Where Will U.S. Talks With North Korea Take Place? Here Are the Top Candidates for Historic Meeting

When President Donald Trump’s unexpectedly agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May, he sparked a flurry of questions—including where the historic summit could take place.

News of the breakthrough, which follows a monthslong war of words between the two leaders, was welcomed by key regional players such as China, Russia and Japan as a step in the right direction, but none are expected to host the meeting.

A South Korean presidential official gave reporters an overview of the possibilities under consideration. "Places like Switzerland, Sweden or Jeju Island have been gaining a lot of attention, but we also view the [Joint Security Area] as a serious option," the unnamed official said, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Switzerland has a history of neutrality and experience in hosting landmark summits, such as the talks between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev that took place in 1985 in Geneva. The French-Swiss city, the seat of various international organizations, also hosted various talks between the U.S., China and the two Koreas in the late 1990s.

03_12_Switzerland A sign near the North Korean Embassy shows the direction to Güemligen, Switzerland, location of the International School of Berne. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have studied at the school under a pseudonym. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

The North Korean leader may feel at home in Switzerland, where he lived during his teenage years under a pseudonym, studying at the International School of Berne. The country’s Foreign Ministry had already offered to host multilateral talks in September after North Korea conducted a hydrogen bomb test. The ministry told local media Friday the offer is still there but it is up to the respective parties to decide where to meet.

Sweden also offered to host the summit. “We can be a channel or do whatever we can to see that the dialogue is smooth,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said Friday at a press conference after meeting Trump. The Swedish leader said his country has North Korea’s trust, due to its neutral position and its diplomatic presence in the country, through which it has often helped others mediate with Pyongyang.

Trump acknowledged this during the press conference, mentioning Sweden’s support in advocating for Americans detained in North Korea. Lofven also emphasized that the final decision has to be made by those involved in the talks. “If the president decides [and] the key actors decide if they want us to help out, we’ll be there,” he said.

Another offer to host the meeting came from the former president of Mongolia, Tsahiagiin Elbegdorj, who proposed his own country in a tweet on Friday. “Here is an offer: US President Trump and NK leader Kim meet in UB [Ulaanbaatar]. Mongolia is the most suitable, neutral territory. We facilitated important meetings, including between Japan and NK,” he wrote.

Kim, who has not left the country on official visits since taking power in December 2011, may prefer staying closer to home—or not leave at all. So even the idyllic Jeju Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may be an unlikely candidate, despite its governor's efforts.

“As the ‘Island of Peace,’ Jeju is the ideal place to hold the North Korea-U.S. summit,” Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong said in a statement quoted in South Korea media, referring to the island’s designation given by the South Korean government over a decade ago. Despite the reputation for peace, the presence of a military base, which is involved in regular U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises loathed by North Korea, could also prove an obstacle to hosting Kim.

The Joint Security Area, the only part of the heavily-guarded demilitarized zone border area dividing the two Koreas in which North and South Korean soldiers face one another, is seen as the most likely location for the talks. Panmunjom village, located within the JSA, is already due to host a meeting between the North Korean leader and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

03_12_Panmunjom A South Korean soldier stands guard inside a Joint Security Area conference room at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea on February 7. Carl Court/Getty Images

The village, administered by the United Nations Command, was the stage for the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. At the time, no peace agreement was signed.

"If North Korea and the U.S., who are the directly involved parties of the truce agreement, hold the summit at Panmunjom, it would hold the significant meaning of turning a symbol of division into one of peace," said the South Korea official, quoted in Yonhap. 

A final, remote, possibility would be for Trump to travel to Pyongyang—a move that would no doubt be seen as deferential to the North Korean leader but could also provide the spectacle and high-stake environment that the American president relishes. Trump's trademark unpredictability leaves all cards on the table.