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Japan, North Korea hold first formal talks since '12 in efforts to normalize relations

BEIJING -- Japan and North Korea on Sunday held the first formal government-level talks in more than a year following a shift in Pyongyang's handling of past abductions of Japanese citizens.

The two-day meeting in Beijing came after diplomats held informal talks on the sidelines of a humanitarian conference in the Chinese city of Shenyang between Red Cross officials from the two countries earlier this month.

“We would like to have serious and frank discussions over a broad range of outstanding issues for both sides,” Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, told Japan's NHK public broadcaster.

“We would like to make efforts so as to make progress towards solving those issues.”

Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan, replied: “I completely feel the same way,” Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

At the North Korean Embassy, the venue of the first day of the meeting, Song expressed hope that relations between the two countries will start moving “in a positive direction,” Kyodo said.

Song also compared the resumption of governmental dialogue to the arrival of spring, “when icy rivers melt and water begins to flow,” Kyodo reported.

The meeting comes amid recent mixed signals from Pyongyang over its willingness to re-engage in diplomacy with Tokyo.

Talks were suspended in late 2012 when Tokyo reiterated its demand that Pyongyang come clean on the abduction issue, which has long hampered efforts to improve ties in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.parents' meeting with their granddaughter was welcomed as a step in the right direction.

The talks were officially called off in December 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, drawing international condemnation. Formal ties with Japan could bring huge economic benefits to the impoverished state.

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 have been repatriated to Japan along with their families. But Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.

Earlier this month, the aging parents of Megumi Yokota — who was abducted on a spy boat in 1977 at the age of 13 — were allowed to meet the kidnapped woman's daughter for the first time, in neutral Mongolia.

Yokota, who was taken while on her way home from school, has remained a painful symbol of the abduction issue. Her Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed the “change” in Pyongyang's attitude, which eased off its earlier demands that any meeting should be held in North Korea.

But North Korea has also stepped up military provocations in recent weeks in protest at the Seoul-Washington drills.

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Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, center right, and Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador in charge of normalizing relations with Japan, center left, arrive for a meeting at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Sunday, March 30. (AP)

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