April 10, 2014 4:29 am JST

North Korea ready to reopen abduction files

TOKYO -- Seeking relief from sanctions, North Korea has told Japan that it is willing to take another look into past kidnappings of Japanese citizens whose families still want answers.

     The offer came during unofficial talks between their governments last weekend in China. Tokyo has begun considering specific sanctions that could be eased.

     The two sides will hold another meeting soon. A new investigation into the decades-old abductions just may lead to much-needed closure for the victims' families.

     In late March, Japan and North Korea had their first official contact in 16 months. Discussions on the abduction issue carried over from that meeting, held in Beijing, took up most of the weekend talks in Shanghai. Among the Japanese sanctions North Korea said it wants lifted are travel restrictions.

     Japanese officials demanded investigations into not only known abductions but also cases of missing persons suspected of having been snatched by North Korean operatives.

     The two will hold unofficial talks again as soon as this month, possibly followed by a formal meeting to finalize a deal, Japanese government sources said.

     North Korea has made such an offer before. After insisting that the abduction cases were closed, it did an about-face in 2008, holding out the prospect of a new investigation. Japan moved to ease some sanctions, but the subsequent resignation of then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda scuppered a deal.

     While this time may be no different, North Korea is showing signs that it is willing to compromise. Last month, it agreed to let the parents of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese schoolgirl taken in 1977, meet the daughter she bore as an abductee. Their encounter took place in Mongolia. The resumption of official talks two weeks later came about with surprising quickness.

     But Japan may find it hard to give the North a carrot when the U.S. and South Korea insist on using sticks to convince Kim Jong Un's regime to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Last weekend's talks came just before a three-way diplomatic meeting between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. Some say Pyongyang may be trying to sow dissent in the trio ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Asia later this month.