An adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secretly visited the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, located not far from North Korea, for about four days in late October, diplomatic sources said Monday, adding fuel to recent speculation that Tokyo has resumed delicate negotiations with Pyongyang.
Given that the Chinese city has been used as a venue in the past for secret meetings between Japan and North Korea, it is possible that the adviser, Isao Iijima, also made contact with North Korean officials there in October.
The visit to the Chinese city by Iijima was revealed by several diplomatic sources in Beijing after Japanese senior diplomats were found to have traveled to Vietnam in late January for a possible meeting with North Korean officials.
Amid Japan's soured ties with China and South Korea over territorial and historical issues, the sources said that behind-the-scenes negotiations between Abe's government and North Korea have become active.
There is some information that Iijima might have met with Chinese officials as well in the major port city, which is connected with Japan by direct flights but easier to avoid drawing media attention than Beijing.
Iijima visited Dalian at a time when the fate of the headquarters site and building of the General Association of Korean Residents, serving as North Korea's de facto mission in Japan, was up in the air after they were put up for auction.
The visit came on the heels of a Mongolian company's winning bid on Oct. 17 for the headquarters site and building of the pro-Pyongyang association, known as Chongryon.
Despite the winning bid, the site of the de facto embassy is still in use by the association as the Tokyo District Court recently rejected the company's offer to buy out the property, saying that some of the documents submitted by the firm for the auction were not trustworthy.
Iijima made an unexpected trip to Pyongyang last May for talks with senior North Korean officials, during which he was asked for help to let officials of the association continue to use the headquarters.
If Iijima met with any North Korean official in October, it is almost certain that the fate of the de facto embassy was discussed between the two sides.
Iijima was a top aide to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and accompanied him for talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002 and May 2004 in Pyongyang.
After returning from Pyongyang last year, Iijima called for talks between Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to achieve a breakthrough on the issue of the North's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
The resolution of the issue -- which remains a key stumbling block in the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea -- has been one of Abe's most important political goals.
Five of the 17 Japanese nationals the government has identified as having been abducted to North Korea were repatriated to Japan in October 2002, a month after the first Koizumi-Kim talks.
While Japan rejects North Korea's position that the remaining abductees are dead, Pyongyang has repeatedly said that the issue has already been settled.