TOKYO — Government officials from Japan and North Korea held their first talks in four years Wednesday, amid hopes that the North’s new leader could be trying to reduce tensions with Japan and, by extension, the United States.
The meeting at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing between midlevel diplomats was described by Japanese officials as a working-level discussion aimed at shaping an agenda for future, higher-level talks. Japanese analysts, however, have speculated that the talks could actually be a feeler from North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, and that he might want improved economic ties with the outside world.
The two nations have no diplomatic relations. Official communications were broken off in 2008 amid acrimony over the North’s nuclear program and the North’s failure to fully address Japan’s concerns about abductions of Japanese citizens in decades past. Tokyo believes the North kidnapped dozens of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, forcing them to train the North’s spies. North Korea returned five abductees in 2002 and insists the issue has been resolved.
Wednesday’s meeting ended without conclusion, with the diplomats expected to meet again Thursday.
Japanese officials said the main topic was whether Japan would be allowed to retrieve the remains of what Tokyo counts as 21,000 Japanese who died at the end of World War II in the North, when it was a Japanese colony.
But Japan’s negotiator, Keiichi Ono, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, stressed the importance of the abductions, which remain a highly emotional issue among the Japanese public. And the top Japanese government spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, told reporters that future talks would proceed only ‘‘with the understanding that the abduction issue will of course be part’’ of them.
Japan will also raise the issue of repatriation of Japanese spouses of North Korean nationals who want to return to Japan, and the turning over of Japanese citizens in North Korea wanted for the hijacking of a Japanese airliner in 1970, Japanese media said.