When Japanese and North Korean officials met in Beijing on July 1, the North Korean delegation agreed to organise a special investigation committee to locate all Japanese citizens living in North Korea, including abductees. The delegation also reportedly handed a preliminary list of about 30 of them to Japanese officials.
Three days later, the Japanese government decided to lift some of the sanctions it had imposed on North Korea in 2006, when Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test. The change will make mutual visits possible and allow North Korean ships to visit Japan again.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, North Korea abducted at least 17 - and possibly more than 90 - Japanese citizens with the intention of forcing them to assist in Pyongyang's espionage activities. In 1987, a female North Korean agent named Kim Hyon Hui destroyed a South Korean airliner when, disguised as a Japanese tourist, she placed a time-bomb on the aircraft. When the agent was arrested, she confessed that she had learnt Japanese from an abducted Japanese woman. Pyongyang denied any involvement.
A major turning point came in 2002 when then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang. He suggested that Japan would normalise diplomatic relations with North Korea and provide a large economic assistance package if the abduction, nuclear and missile issues were resolved. Surprisingly, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il subsequently acknowledged the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens, as well as the existence of Kim Hyon Hui's Japanese teacher, something North Korea had spent more than a decade denying.
But while allowing the return of five abductees to Japan, Mr Kim Jong Il declared that eight others were already dead. The declaration infuriated family members of abductees, and Japanese media and politicians strongly condemned North Korea. Among those taking a hard line against Pyongyang at the time was then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.
Diplomatic ties were not normalised.
Tokyo tries again
It therefore came as a surprise earlier this month when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the initiation of serious dialogue with North Korea. Normally, such an attempt at rapprochement would be fraught with political difficulty for any Japanese politician. But in a paradoxical way, Mr Abe's reputation for taking a tough stand against North Korea in the past may actually help. Just as anti-communist Richard Nixon could make friends with communist China, Mr Abe's hardliner credentials make it difficult for critics to criticise him for engaging Pyongyang.
The wishes of the family members of the abductees were probably behind Mr Abe's decision. Ten years ago, these family members wanted the Japanese government to put more pressure on North Korea. Now, they are telling the government to resolve the abduction issue in any way possible. Many of them are in their 80s and 90s, and some of them have passed away without seeing their missing loved ones. They don't have too much time. They want results.
North Korea's motives
We can only speculate on North Korea's intentions. There are at least three different theories. First, Pyongyang is looking for food and other humanitarian aid from Japan since such supplies are no longer coming from China and South Korea. Current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle, Mr Jang Song Thaek, who played a central role in managing transactions between China and North Korea, was executed last December partly for selling off "coal and other precious underground resources" to China. And the South Korean government remains uncompromising: There will be no assistance without reciprocity.
North Korea may also be trying to enhance its bargaining position in the regional power game by driving a wedge between its neighbours. Pyongyang recently strengthened its ties with Moscow. It then began to talk seriously to Tokyo just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was showing Beijing's displeasure with its ally by visiting Seoul ahead of a visit to North Korea.
Finally, North Korea might be seeking Japanese help to rehabilitate its economy. In March last year, Mr Kim Jong Un laid out a new approach to economic development and appointed reformist Pak Pong Ju as premier in April. In November, the North Korean government followed this up by creating a special economic zone in Sinuiju and 13 provincial economic development zones across the country.
North Korea introduced reformist economic policies in July 2002 just two months before Mr Koizumi visited Pyongyang. Mr Pak also served as premier between 2003 and 2007, tasked to rehabilitate the country's economy.
No quick solution
But there are limits to the extent to which relations between North Korea and Japan can be expected to change. For one thing, the process will not lead quickly to diplomatic normalisation. Japan has decided to front-load the abduction issue in order to make progress on this difficult issue quite separately from nuclear and missile issues.
Japan's position is consistent: Normalisation will come only after the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues are resolved. Before that happens, no substantial economic assistance will be provided - Japan will limit itself to providing humanitarian assistance.
Even if North Korea is willing to return the abductees to Japan, it will be a painfully protracted process. Every time North Korea returns abductees, it will demand significant rewards. North Korea will likely return a relatively small number of abductees each time to make it possible for it to keep obtaining aid from Japan over a long period.
In 2002, North Korea attempted to resolve the abduction issue in one big shot and failed. When Japan secured five abductees and their kids, it started bashing North Korea. The leaders in Pyongyang must have learnt lessons from the experience. They will hold back some cards while playing others this time.
There are other constraints as well. Like Kim Hyon Hui's Japanese teacher, some of the abductees have been forced to support North Korea's espionage activities. Mr Kim Jong Il acknowledged the language teacher's abduction but declared her dead. Pyongyang will find it difficult to return abductees with similar experiences.
North Korea might also try to confuse Japan by returning a large number of so-called "Japanese wives". More than 1,800 of them voluntarily immigrated to North Korea with their Korean husbands between 1959 and 1984 as part of the home-going campaigns in which more than 90,000 Korean expatriates moved from Japan to North Korea.
Mr Kim Jong Un is in a better position than his father to put an end to the abduction issue. While his father ordered the abductions, he was not even born when North Korea started to abduct Japanese citizens in the 1970s.
If North Korea is to improve its relationship with Japan, it will become the first foreign policy achievement for young Kim Jong Un, whose mother was born in Japan and lived there for about 20 years. Mr Kim reportedly visited the Tokyo Disneyland with his mother and brother in 1991 when he was eight years old.
The writer is a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Grips) in Tokyo, where he is director of the Security and International Studies Programme.
This article was first published on July 23, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.