Japan and North Korea Reopen Talks on Normalizing Relations

After a four-year gap, Japan and North Korea have reopened negotiations on normalizing diplomatic ties. North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s leads the agenda, with Japan insisting Pyongyang show "sincerity" on the matter before relations can be established. where the negotiations - expected to last five days - began on Saturday.

The talks in Beijing are part of a long-standing effort by North Korea and Japan to establish formal ties. Until Saturday, negotiations had been on hold since 2002, when the two sides met in Malaysia.

The head of Japan's delegation, Koichi Haraguchi, arrived in Beijing Saturday saying his government wants movement on its demand for more information on Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents during the Cold War. He said the North Koreans must sincerely address this and other major issues before diplomatic ties are established.

The Japanese diplomat says that if North Korea does not address the abductions, as well as nuclear and other issues, it will not be easy for the talks to develop into a discussion on the normalization of ties.

North Korea, which wants reparations from Tokyo for Japan's colonization of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century, says it has accounted for the kidnappings, and considers the issue settled. Speaking on his arrival to Beijing Saturday, North Korea's chief negotiator said his delegation had much to say on the matter, but gave no details.

Pyongyang has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese, and says eight of those have died. The other five have been returned to Japan. Japan says it believes more than 13 were abducted, and wants full information on all of them.

Negotiators are breaking up into three groups to discuss the kidnapping issue, the normalization of ties, and the matter of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

Analysts say Japan has been eager to resolve these issues, especially after the North test-fired a missile over Japan in 1998.

International relations professor Dennis McNamara, currently teaching at Beijing's Renmin University, says the current set of talks might be useful in breaking the impasse that is stalling multi-national negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. He says partners in the negotiations are watching these talks closely.

"I think the United States...would be very happy to have Japan accomplish something. First of all, to get North Korea back to the six-party talks, but secondly to get some sort of compromise. Things like the abduction issue of course would be very important for Japan. Japan would be very happy with that, but the United States would be delighted. That would mean some movement."

Talks among China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States got under way in 2003, but have produced only a statement of principles in which North Korea in September agreed to give up its nuclear programs. However, the process remains stalled, with North Korea hesitating to return to follow-up negotiations.