TOKYO: Japanese government and Red Cross officials left Sunday for talks in China with their North Korean counterparts in a rare meeting that might help improve frosty relations.
The delegation headed to Shenyang for the Red Cross talks about possible visits by Japanese to the graves of family members who died in North Korea decades ago, or missions to collect their remains.
The team includes Keiichi Ono, who heads the foreign ministry’s Northeast Asia division. The government talks will be held on the sidelines of the Red Cross meeting.
While there were few details of the agenda for the meeting which starts Monday, officials are hopeful that good discussions might help bridge the gap between the two nations, said Osaku Tasaka, head of the international division at Japan’s Red Cross.
“We don’t know exactly what kind of agenda items (North Koreans) will bring,” he told reporters.
“This meeting is designed specifically for the remains. But if discussions on this theme make progress, I hope it will also make a positive impact on other subjects.”
Ties between the two countries have long been strained, though they periodically try to resume dialogue with the ultimate — and so far elusive — goal of establishing formal diplomatic relations.
Officials from the two Red Cross societies last met in August 2012 and this led to talks by government officials in November of that year.
They had planned to meet again in December 2012 but that was canceled after Pyongyang announced its plan to launch a long-range missile.
One of the thorniest issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang is the fate of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s to train its spies.
But it is not clear if government officials will discuss that in the upcoming talks, Japanese diplomats have said.
North Korea, meanwhile, craves trade with Japan yet blasts its military alliance with the United States, its 1910-45 colonisation of Korea and its treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.