Japan, N. Korea talks end on positive note: official

Japan, N. Korea talks end on positive note: official
Junichi Ihara (fourth from the left), Japanese Foreign Ministry director general, talks to North Korea's ambassador for talks to normalise relations with Japan at the North Korean embassy in Beijing.

BEIJING - Government-level talks between Japan and North Korea ended Monday in Beijing on a positive note, with Pyongyang apparently prepared to discuss the Japanese citizens kidnapped by its spies decades ago.

At their first formal meeting in 16 months, diplomats from the two countries spoke on a range of issues over two days, including North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, officials said.

"We had serious and frank discussions on wide-ranging pending issues of mutual interest," Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asian and Oceanian affairs bureau, told reporters.

"We agreed to continue government-to-government consultations with the next round to be arranged through our embassies in Beijing," he said.

The meeting came as Pyongyang's troops traded hundreds of rounds of live artillery fire across their disputed maritime border Monday.

South Korea's defence ministry said the North fired some 500 shells during the drill, around 100 of them landing on the south side of the sea boundary.

While relations with South Korea continue to be testy, Pyongyang's approach to its dealings with Japan appears to have softened in recent months, especially on the emotive issue of abductions.

North Korea outraged Japan when it admitted more than a decade ago that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.

Five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan, but Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.

Ihara said he had presented "our basic ideas" on the abduction issue. "The North Korean side responded in a manner not to refuse discussions." The Japanese side also protested against the communist state's launch of ballistic missiles and its threat to conduct more nuclear tests, he said.

Pyongyang for its part renewed its demand that Tokyo compensate Koreans for their suffering during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, according to Japanese sources quoted by the Jiji and Kyodo news agencies.

The Beijing meeting took place after diplomats held informal talks on the sidelines of a humanitarian conference in the Chinese city of Shenyang between Red Cross officials from the two countries earlier this month.

It was held at the North Korean embassy on Sunday and at the Japanese embassy on Monday.

The meeting comes amid recent mixed signals from Pyongyang over its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy with the outside world.

Talks were suspended in late 2012 when Tokyo reiterated its demand that Pyongyang come clean on the abduction issue.

They officially called off the talks in December 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, drawing international condemnation. Formal ties with Japan could bring huge economic benefits to the impoverished state.

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