SEOUL (Kyodo) Japan and South Korea agreed Saturday that before direct talks can take place between Tokyo and Pyongyang to address the North’s past abductions of Japanese nationals, inter-Korean dialogue should be held to repair bilateral ties and defuse tensions on the peninsula.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung Hwan, told a joint news conference in Seoul that their countries and the United States share the view that the two Koreas should first engage in talks, following the North’s deadly shelling of a South Korean border island last November.

Maehara earlier caused a stir when he proposed resuming direct Japan-North Korea talks, which have stalled since August 2008, to address Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and the abduction issue. The foreign minister made it clear that he expects such dialogue to be held after the envisioned inter-Korean talks.

“Generally speaking, I believe dialogue between Japan and North Korea can be held separately from the six-party talks” on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Maehara said.

“But at the same time, the timing of such bilateral talks should be based on movements related to the six-way dialogue and held under appropriate conditions,” he added.

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia have been deadlocked since December 2008.

China proposed an emergency meeting under the six-party framework in December, but Japan, South Korea and the United States have been reluctant to accept the proposal, saying Pyongyang must first demonstrate it is serious about the negotiations and take concrete steps toward denuclearization.

In November, North Korea revealed it has a uranium enrichment program, potentially another route to the production of nuclear bombs, in addition to its plutonium-based program. The program was witnessed by a group of U.S. nuclear experts.

Maehara said it would be desirable for Japan, South Korea and the United States to each promote bilateral dialogue with the North, while at the same time cooperating closely in dealing with Pyongyang.

Turning to bilateral issues, the two foreign ministers agreed they will continue to work toward creating the conditions to resume stalled negotiations on a free-trade agreement and enhance cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the South Korean military.

The bilateral FTA talks were launched in December 2003 but have been suspended since November 2004 due to differences over potential tariff cuts on farm and industrial products.

Maehara said Japan will “fully heed the sensitivity” of the South Korean people in its bid to boost security cooperation with the South, given Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The defense ministers of the two countries agreed last Monday to boost defense cooperation.

Kim and Maehara also agreed that summit talks between South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Prime Minister Naoto Kan will be held this year as part of shuttle diplomacy, or frequent reciprocal visits.

The ministers also confirmed that Tokyo will aim for the early transfer of 1,205 volumes of Korean archives brought to Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and offer support to war-displaced Koreans.

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