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Senior Foreign Ministry officials from Japan and North Korea held secret discussions in Beijing in January on restarting stalled negotiations on normalizing bilateral diplomatic ties, informed sources said Tuesday.

No agreement was reached on the timing of the new round in the meeting between North Korean officials and Kazuyoshi Umemoto, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, the sources said.

The same problems that have plagued previous negotiations once more blocked progress — the return of at least 10 Japanese allegedly abducted by North Korean agents in seven incidents in the 1970s and 1980s and compensation for Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

The exact date of the Beijing talks could not immediately be confirmed. Both Tokyo and Pyongyang have embassies in the Chinese capital.

After a hiatus of nearly 7 1/2 years, Japan and North Korea opened their ninth round of normalization negotiations in Pyongyang in early April, followed by talks in Tokyo in late August and in Beijing at the end of October.

In earlier rounds, North Korea had demanded an apology and compensation for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Japan rejected the demand for wartime compensation, insisting there was no war with North Korea at the time.

In the 10th round in Tokyo, Japan suggested extending economic assistance instead of paying wartime compensation, a course Japan followed when normalizing relations with South Korea in 1965 by providing $500 million in grants and loans.

North Korea, however, rejected the proposal.

North Korea’s missile development program, which Tokyo considers to be a grave threat to its national security, has also interfered with progress.

After the Tokyo talks, Japan decided in early October to grant North Korea more than 100 billion yen in rice aid, totaling 500,000 tons, in an effort to improve the atmosphere surrounding the talks.

But the two countries again failed to make significant progress in Beijing in October and could not even agree on specific dates for a further round of negotiations.

U.S. President George W. Bush has made it clear his new administration will take a harder stance on North Korea than the previous administration of Bill Clinton.

“Pyongyang is apparently taking a wait-and-see attitude to see what specific policy the Bush administration will formulate toward North Korea,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said.

U.S.-North Korea relations warmed at an unprecedented pace last year, with then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s mid-October visit to Pyongyang making her the first American minister to visit the country.

Clinton also planned to visit the North Korean capital before he left the White House on Jan. 20, but abandoned the idea after bilateral missile talks failed to progress and in the face of strong domestic opposition, especially from Republicans.

While Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have reaffirmed the importance of maintaining close policy coordination regarding North Korea, Bush is yet to complete his foreign- and security-policy team, a process that may take several weeks.

In the face of these delays, U.S. visits by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to meet Bush are not expected before next month, despite the two Asian countries’ desire to make the trips this month.

Bush’s attitude toward North Korea may conflict with Kim’s “sunshine” policy toward North Korea, making policy coordination between the two and Japan problematic.

Kim held a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in mid-June and the North Korean Kim is expected to visit Seoul during the first half of this year.

The Foreign Ministry source said North Korea may try to improve its ties with South Korea and Japan — the two key allies of the U.S. in Asia — in anticipation of a harsher stance from Bush. Pyongyang, however, has yet to show conciliatory gestures toward Tokyo, the source said.

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