Japan and North Korea will hold inter-governmental talks in China later this month, Tokyo said Tuesday, in the first face-to-face meeting between the sides in four years.
A senior Japanese bureaucrat will lead the delegation for the meeting in Beijing, which comes after Red Cross societies from both sides met to discuss the repatriation of remains from Japan’s occupation of the peninsula.
“There are several issues between Japan and North Korea and after having discussions we have decided to hold inter-governmental talks soon,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters.
“We decided that preparatory talks will be held on August 29 in Beijing” when the subject matter for future meetings will be discussed.
“We have been working based on the principle of settling the unfortunate past and on restoring normal relations,” he said.
Fujimura said Tokyo had informed both Seoul and Washington about this meeting.
Government talks would signal a slight thawing in frosty relations and would be the first official contact between the two sides since untested young leader Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father in Pyongyang last year.
They would also be among the first significant diplomatic contacts for North Korea under Kim, who is being carefully watched by the outside world for the direction in which he takes his nuclear-armed nation.
Many in the international community are keen for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks on denuclearization that it abandoned in December 2008.
The talks, which group the two Koreas, the US, Japan, Russia and China, envisage a peace treaty and other benefits if the North scraps its atomic weapons program.
North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket on April 13 heightened regional tensions and sank a deal with the United States reached on February 29.
Under that agreement, the North had agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment plant and suspend nuclear and missile tests, while the US promised 240,000 tons of food aid.
The US and its allies described the rocket launch as a disguised missile test, while the North said its aim was only to put a satellite into orbit. The rocket failed soon after takeoff.
Tokyo does not have relations with Pyongyang and their last meeting was held in 2008 when Japan’s foreign ministry says North Korea agreed to reopen investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by agents to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.
The issue ignites strong feelings in Japan, where many feel Pyongyang’s 2002 admission on abductions was not the whole story and that more missing Japanese met their fate in North Korea after being kidnapped in the 1970s or 1980s.
Its perceived refusal to come clean has derailed efforts to normalize ties between the two countries.
Fujimura said Japan wanted to discuss the kidnap issue with North Korea and would be bringing it up at the August 29 meeting.
Tuesday’s announcement came after a seemingly productive meeting between Red Cross societies last week, their first in a decade, in which they talked about the repatriation of remains of those who died in the North during and immediately after World War II.
Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 until 1945, and about 34,600 Japanese died in what is now North Korea after Soviet troops entered at the end of the war, according to the Japanese welfare ministry.
The remains of about 13,000 Japanese have been repatriated but around 21,000 others are believed to be buried in the North.