Japan starts mulling resumption of stalled talks with N. Korea

Japan on Tuesday began considering resuming bilateral talks with North Korea that have been suspended since last November, following a recent trip to North Korea by one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's advisers, with Tokyo hoping to make progress on the abduction issue, Japanese sources said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated at a news conference earlier Tuesday that future bilateral negotiations would be conducted through the Foreign Ministry, rather than the backchannel used by the adviser, Isao Iijima, during his trip to North Korea last week.

If resumed, however, Japan is likely to face the difficult task of balancing coordination with the international community in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs, and Tokyo's desire to engage Pyongyang in a bid to break the impasse over the abduction issue.

Iijima's visit has drawn negative reactions from the United States and South Korea as Japan and the two countries were supposed to be united in their efforts not to engage in dialogue with North Korea unless Pyongyang shows a clear intention to resume denuclearization steps.

Iijima briefed Abe on Tuesday about his discussions with senior North Korean officials, telling reporters after the meeting at the prime minister's office, "I think the prime minister will put (his belief) into action with unwavering resolve."

The bilateral talks would cover a reinvestigation into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, and the possible return to Japan of Japanese women who accompanied their Korean spouses to North Korea decades ago.

Such talks would be held in a third country, such as Mongolia, according to the sources.

Iijima indicated to reporters the same day that Abe would seek to make progress on negotiations over the abduction issue, a major obstacle that has prevented Japan and North Korea from normalizing ties, after carefully analyzing the series of meetings he held in Pyongyang during his four-day trip.

Suga, the top Japanese government spokesman, told a news conference that Abe, who has pledged to resolve the abduction issue during his term as prime minister, and his Cabinet "will seek every possibility" to solve the issue.

Also Tuesday, Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of the abduction issue, said Tokyo is urging Pyongyang to return all the Japanese suspected of being kidnapped by its agents -- in addition to those officially recognized by Tokyo as abductees.

Counting suspected cases investigated independently by a civic group, the potential number of abductees totals more than 400, while the government has currently placed 17 people on its list of abductees.

"Our basic policy is getting back all people abducted by North Korea. Mr. Iijima delivered that message," Furuya said on a television program.

Iijima visited Pyongyang from May 14 to 17, conveying to North Korean officials Abe's strong intention to address the abduction issue. The senior officials he met while in the country included the country's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam.

Iijima was a top aide to Junichiro Koizumi when he was prime minister, accompanying him in 2002 and 2004 to Pyongyang for talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The September 2002 talks led to the return to Japan of five abductees the following month.

North Korea has held to its stance that the abduction issue has already been resolved, much to the consternation of the families of abduction victims who have yet to return, including Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 at age 13.

The talks between Japan and North Korea, which had resumed in August for the first time in four years, were suspended as Pyongyang announced in December that it would launch an "Earth observation satellite."

North Korea followed up the announcement by successfully launching a rocket later in the month, a move widely viewed as a test of banned ballistic missile technology. It also conducted a third nuclear test in February, sparking strong condemnation from the international community.