Japanese and North Korean diplomats have agreed to work toward the resumption of formal intergovernmental talks for the first time since November 2012 “as soon as possible,” a Japanese official said Thursday.
The agreement was reached during informal talks between the diplomats on the sidelines of a two-day meeting of the two countries’ Red Cross societies in the northeastern Chinese city Shenyang, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Red Cross meeting just ended. The informal talks on Wednesday and Thursday between Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and Ryu Song Il, chief of the Japanese affairs section at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, were “sincere and constructive” the official said.
Formal intergovernmental negotiations between Japan and North Korea were suspended in the wake of Pyongyang’s launch in December 2012 of what it says was a satellite. Other countries condemned the launch as a covert test of long-range missile technology in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
If government-to-government negotiations were resumed, they would likely be at a director-general level.
The issue of Japanese nationals whom North Korean agents abducted in the 1970s and 1980s would be a major agenda item for the two governments.
For Japan, the abduction issue remains a major obstacle to normalizing bilateral relations with North Korea.
The agreement between the diplomats in the Chinese city was made after the parents of a Japanese woman who was abducted by North Korea more than three decades ago were able to see their granddaughter for the first time last week.
The parents of Megumi Yokota, seen as a symbol of the long-unresolved abduction issue, were allowed by North Korea to secretly meet her daughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.
Megumi went missing on her way home from school in 1977, when she was 13. No information regarding her whereabouts was given while her parents spent time with their 26-year-old granddaughter and her family for five days.
North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese nationals. Five of them were later repatriated to Japan but North Korea has claimed the remaining eight, including Yokota, are dead.
Japan has insisted North Korea has yet to provide credible evidence regarding the fate of the eight abductees.
The Japanese government has identified 17 Japanese nationals as victims of North Korea’s abductions and believes there are more cases.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given high priority to resolving the abduction issue, while struggling to establish friendly ties with China and South Korea since taking office in December 2012.
North Korea, which seems to be in dire need of economic help from outside, has recently been signaling its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy and somewhat easing tensions with other countries in the region.