• Kyodo

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Japanese and North Korean negotiators began a new round of talks Monday on establishing diplomatic ties, with the focus likely to be on Pyongyang’s demands that Tokyo apologize and pay compensation for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The two countries are expected to enter substantial negotiations in the two days of talks in the Chinese capital, their third session this year. They spent the last two rounds clarifying their basic positions.

“It is my understanding that we will finally enter specific negotiations from this meeting,” said Japan’s top negotiator, Ambassador Kojiro Takano, at the outset of the talks, which are being held at the Japanese Embassy.

“I strongly hope that relations between the two countries will become truly close,” Takano said.

Ambassador Jong Thae Hwa, who heads the North Korean team, said there have been dramatic changes since August, when the two countries last held negotiations. He may have been referring to Pyongyang’s improved ties with Washington since then.

“The two months passed very quickly. We have been busy amid an environment that has been changing rapidly,” Jong said.

The talks are the 11th normalization session held between the two countries. Japan and North Korea resumed dialogue in April in Pyongyang for the first time in 71/2 years, and met again in August in Tokyo and in Chiba Prefecture.

Negotiations are likely to center on North Korea’s demand for an official apology and compensation for Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula.

“I believe the issue of settling the past will be the center of discussions,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said late Sunday.

Japan has rejected the notion of wartime compensation, reckoning Japan and North Korea were not at war at the time.

But in the last round in August, it floated the idea of extending economic help instead, as it did when it normalized relations with South Korea in 1965. Japan gave $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea in place of compensation.

Tokyo plans to make the same proposal during the talks, other ministry sources said.

Another sticking point is the dispute over the Japanese who Tokyo believes were abducted by North Korean agents.

Japan claims that at least 10 of its citizens were abducted to the North in seven cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang denies the charges, but has promised to search for them as “missing persons.”

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori sparked a domestic furor when he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting in Seoul on Oct. 20 that a Japanese delegation had suggested to North Korean officials in 1997 that the issue could be solved if the missing Japanese were “found” somewhere outside of North Korea. The comments provoked vehement protests from critics who said the plan would leave the question of who was responsible for the abductions unanswered.

The Japanese source said Japan will try “to find common points” with North Korea in the fresh round so they can agree on some matters, but added they may not necessarily be key issues.

The source was likely referring to a possible agreement on points that are less contentious than the compensation and abduction issues, such as the apology and North Korea’s request for ensuring the legal status of Korean residents of Japan.

In a bid to boost the chances of a breakthrough, Tokyo decided earlier this month to send 500,000 tons of rice to the North, which is beset by food shortages.

International factors could also play a role in the talks.

The meeting comes as North Korea appears headed toward warmer ties with South Korea and the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang on Oct. 23 and 24, becoming the first U.S. cabinet member to ever visit North Korea.

Britain, Germany and Spain have also said they plan to establish diplomatic ties with the North.

The previous series of normalization talks between Japan and North Korea began in January 1991, but collapsed in November 1992 when Pyongyang rejected Tokyo’s request for information on a Japanese woman allegedly snatched by North Korean agents.

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