March 22, 2014 4:09 am JST

Japan, North Korea quickly segue to formal talks

TOKYO -- Japan and North Korea will hold intergovernmental talks later this month, an abrupt development that raises hopes for new openness from Pyongyang on past abductions of Japanese nationals.

     The March 30-31 meeting in Beijing between senior Japanese and North Korean officials will come less than a month from the first of two informal exchanges. It will be the first formal contact between the two countries in 16 months.

     Officials from both sides met informally through their Red Cross societies on March 3 and again this week.

     The two countries have decided to move to formal talks at "a very rapid tempo," a diplomatic source said.

     Last week, the parents of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese schoolgirl kidnapped and taken to North Korea in 1977, spent several days with her daughter, who was born during Megumi's captivity. The Japanese government pushed for the meeting in Mongolia, and Pyongyang's consent suggests that it suddenly favors dialogue with Japan.

     Some officials see a chance that North Korea will agree to a new probe into the abductions, including the whereabouts of Megumi. Pyongyang claims she has died but has failed to produce conclusive evidence.

     Japan has informed both the U.S. and South Korea of plans for official talks with the North, according to a senior Japanese foreign ministry official.

     Tokyo plans to raise a broad range of topics at the meeting, including North Korea's nuclear program and ballistic missile launches.

     Some in the Japanese government see no chance of the U.S. taking the lead in pursuing closure in the abduction cases. Meanwhile, there is concern in Washington and Seoul that if Japan achieves a breakthrough on its own, it may agree to provide aid to the North.