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Japan and North Korea are trying to schedule their next round talks on bilateral issues, including the Japanese abducted by the North, in mid-March, diplomatic sources said Thursday.

The two countries are working on finalizing the arrangements in discussions on the sidelines of the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear threat that are taking place in Beijing, the sources said.

The next bilateral dialogue is expected to center on gaining concessions from North Korea on Japan’s demand that the North allow the families of five abductees, who were repatriated in October 2002 after spending 24 years in the North, to travel Japan.

The deputy chiefs of the Japanese and North Korean delegations met behind the scenes Wednesday night in Beijing to discuss the scheduling, the sources said.

Akitaka Saiki, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, told Li Gun, deputy director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau, that Japan wants to hold the next round of talks in March.

Li showed a positive attitude toward the proposal, the sources said.

The scheduling issue was also discussed in formal bilateral talks Wednesday in Beijing between the two countries’ chief delegates, the sources said.

Japan’s Mitoji Yabunaka conveyed his wish for the two sides to meet either in the middle or late part of March, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan is believed to have relayed that message to Pyongyang.

In their meeting, Yabunaka, director general of the ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, and Kim failed to make headway over the abduction issue, agreeing only to continue government-level dialogue on the matter and other bilateral issues, Japanese officials said.

Yabunaka repeated Tokyo’s demand that Pyongyang promptly and unconditionally send the relatives of the five abductees to Japan as well as provide fuller accounts on the fates of 10 other people recognized by Japan as having been abducted by North Korea.

But Kim simply reiterated Pyongyang’s basic assertion that Japan broke its initial promise to send the five back to North Korea, the officials said. Japan has denied there ever was such a promise.

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