North Korea and Japan are expected to discuss the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped decades ago by Pyongyang as their envoys met for three days of talks in Stockholm that began yesterday.
The meeting in the Swedish capital takes place after the two countries held their first official talks in 16 months in China in March, speaking on a range of issues including the abductions and North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
One of the most remarkable features of the new talks is the Scandinavian venue, as bilateral talks have so far tended to take place in Asia, and China in particular. Observers said the decision not to meet in China could reflect the tension between Tokyo and Beijing, especially over territorial issues in the East China Sea, but Japanese media suggested Pyongyang might also want to try a new venue.
"North Korea apparently wants to have in-depth talks in a place away from China at a time when its relations with China are strained," an unnamed Japanese official had told the Mainichi Daily News.
Sweden has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since 1973, and it also represents the interests of US citizens in the country in the absence of diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang.
The Japanese side was expected to tell the North Koreans that it was willing to lift some economic sanctions imposed on the hermit state if it was convinced that Pyongyang is making a serious effort to investigate what happened to abductees still unaccounted for, Kyodo News said, citing unnamed sources.
"I don't think it represents any reconciliation between the two sides, but there is a meeting of interests, and both would get something off it if there was a deal done," said Hazel Smith, an expert on Korean politics at the University of Central Lancashire. "For Japan, it would mean a political success for the government, and for North Korea it could mean, they hope, the possibility of increased trade."
While relations with South Korea remain testy, Pyongyang's approach to its dealings with Japan appears to have softened in recent months, especially on the emotive issue of abductions.
In March, North Korea allowed the daughter of a Japanese woman who was kidnapped in the 1970s and later died to travel to Mongolia to meet her grandparents, who had flown in from Japan.
"It's a sign that the North Koreans are prepared to do pretty much anything in order to get a deal with the Japanese, because they feel it's achievable," said Smith, indicating that it could mark the first step towards a wider thawing of tensions. North Korea outraged Japan when it admitted more than a decade ago that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.
Five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan but Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead. "Needless to say, the abduction issue is one of the nation's biggest concerns," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said last week when announcing the Stockholm meeting. "
During the March meeting, the Japanese side protested against the communist state's launch of ballistic missiles and its threat to conduct more nuclear tests. Japan may reiterate this in Stockholm, but it is unlikely to make any progress, since North Korea prefers to deal with the United States on this issue, according to analysts.
Pyongyang for its part renewed its demand that Tokyo compensate Koreans for their suffering during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.