Japan and North Korea on Monday started three days of negotiations in Sweden, with Tokyo poised to get Pyongyang to agree to reinvestigate the fates of Japanese it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
Japan is considering lifting part of the sanctions it unilaterally imposes on North Korea once Tokyo sees substantial progress in reinvestigating what became of the Japanese abducted and still missing, according to government sources.
Japanese officials are paying attention to how North Korea will respond to Japan's demand in the last round of talks in late March in Beijing for the reinvestigation of the abduction and for abductees to be returned to Japan. Pyongyang has said the abduction issue has been settled.
"When you negotiate with North Korea, you match words with words and action with action," a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said. "If they say positive words, we will return positive words. If they take positive action, we will do likewise."
North Korea has conducted investigations into the abductees in the past, but Japan has dismissed the results, saying they are unconvincing. In 2008, Pyongyang promised to reinvestigate, but it has yet to do so.
"We hope things will move forward, even by one step," Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Monday in Tokyo.
Asked if Japan is prepared to ease sanctions on North Korea once Pyongyang reinvestigates the whereabouts of Japanese abductees, the chief Cabinet secretary only said the government would "consider the most effective way (for moving toward a solution)."
As with the Beijing session, the talks in Stockholm take place between Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan.
North Korea proposed that Ihara and Song meet in the Swedish capital this time, Japanese officials said, without providing details.
Experts say that an accord Japan and North Korea struck in 2008 in Shenyang, China, can serve as a reference for the negotiations in Stockholm.
Though it was not implemented, the accord says that once North Korea starts reinvestigation of abduction cases, Japan will lift travel restrictions between the two countries and allow chartered flights linking the nations.
"If there would be any agreement, I think the Shenyang accord would be a baseline for it," said Narushige Michishita, a professor of international security and Korea studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "If there would be a plus to the 2008 accord for both sides, it would better serve for improvement of bilateral relations."
Michishita cautioned that if Japan attaches too many conditions for easing sanctions, such as demanding that North Korea produce tangible results in reinvestigation, the two sides may end up discussing the "entrance" of how to address the abduction issue at the expense of dealing with the issue itself.
"As long as the two sides make sure that North Korea will conduct reinvestigation steadily, things should move forward," he said.
Underscoring his comments, the government sources said that to make North Korea more forward-looking in launching and carrying out reinvestigation, Japan may show some flexibility about the timing of easing sanctions.
Japan officially lists 17 nationals as abductees, but suspects North Korea's involvement in other disappearances. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang claims eight has died and four others have never entered the country.
In Stockholm, Song is expected to call on the Japanese government to block the sale of the headquarters site and building in Tokyo of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon.
The headquarters has functioned as a de facto North Korean embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The Tokyo High Court recently dismissed an appeal filed by Chongryon against the sale of the property to a Japanese real estate company, after the property was ordered sold to raise money to cover debts left by a failed credit union serving pro-Pyongyang Koreans residing in Japan. Chongryon has appealed the matter to the Supreme Court.
On security, Ihara is expected to urge North Korea to refrain from provocative acts such as a nuclear test and ballistic missile launches, especially after the country threatened in late March to conduct a "new form of nuclear test."
As for North Korea's call on Japan to "settle its past," or compensate for the suffering of the Korean people under Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Ihara is to reiterate Tokyo's position that Japan will extend economic cooperation to North Korea after normalizing relations as spelled out in the Pyongyang Declaration, a key diplomatic document signed by the two countries in 2002.