BEIJING – Officials from Japan and North Korea held their first government-to-government talks in four years on Wednesday, amid hopes that new leader Kim Jong Un will adopt a less confrontational approach to relations between his isolated, impoverished nation and the outside world.
The talks are being held at the Japanese Embassy in China, the North's closest ally and biggest aid source, which has been subtly pushing for economic reforms and a more cooperative tone. They are being described as preliminary discussions to pave the way for full-fledged talks in the future covering a broader agenda.
Discussions between Tokyo and Pyongyang have been frozen since August 2008 because of animosity over past frictions and disputes over the North's nuclear program and its kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. The countries do not have formal diplomatic relations.
Japan is pushing to have the highly emotional kidnapping issue included in the agenda for future talks, chief Japanese government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said. North Korea has admitted abducting 13 Japanese nationals and using them to train spies. It pledged in the 2008 talks to reinvestigate the abductions, but has not done so.
North Korea is using the talks to improve ties with Japan because it urgently needs economic help, said Jeung Young-tae of the South Korean government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. The North probably wants both investments and compensation for Tokyo's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in 1910-1945, Jeung said.
"North Korea needs Japanese assistance to find a way out of" its dire economic problems, he said.
The talks were scheduled after the two nations' Red Cross societies met in Beijing earlier this month to discuss the repatriation of the remains of Japanese soldiers, and come a day after a Japanese delegation landed in Pyongyang in a bid to bring back the remains of relatives who died in North Korea during World War II.
During the 10-day trip, the delegation will visit the graves of Japanese who died in Korea in the closing stages of the war.
In another sign of a slight thaw in Japan-North Korea relations, Tokyo issued special visas to North Korean soccer players to allow them to participate in the women's under-20 World Cup in Japan. Japan has banned trade and exchanges of people with North Korea under sanctions it imposed over the North's nuclear and missile programs, but sports and humanitarian visits are considered exceptions.
Associated Press writer Kim Hyung-jin in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.