Japan, North Korea closing in on new talks: Tokyo

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan said on Wednesday it was close to holding another round of talks with North Korea, amid reports that they will meet in China next week.

"The Japanese and North Korean governments are in the final stages of discussions to set the time and the place" for the next talks, said Mr Yoshihide Suga, Japan's top government spokesman.

The comment came amid local news accounts that the two nations are scheduling a two-day meeting from Tuesday in China, where Pyongyang is expected to explain its progress in launching a fresh investigation of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

The meeting would come nearly a month after Tokyo announced it would ease sanctions against North Korea if the secretive state reinvestigated the abduction cases, an issue that conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked to solve for years.

In the expected talks next week, the North would give details of a special committee formed to carry out the promised probe, including the team's composition and leadership hierarchy, Kyodo News said.

Japan has said the investigation has to be substantive and credible before it will lift its unilateral sanctions.

Vice-foreign minister Akitaka Saiki, the ministry's top bureaucrat, and direct negotiator Junichi Ihara, the head of Asian and Oceanian affairs, visited Mr Abe Wednesday. Mr Ihara is Japan's chief negotiator on the issue.

The deal in May between Japan and the North was seen as a major breakthrough in a very strained relationship and the most positive engagement between Pyongyang and the outside world in many months.

But it was also seen as a gamble for Mr Abe, who rose to national prominence because of his focus on the kidnapping issue and his tough stance on North Korea.

Some analysts have warned that Pyongyang - under strict international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes - might be attempting to lure Japan into a warmer relationship, possibly alienating Washington and Seoul.

There has been speculation that Mr Abe may visit Pyongyang as part of efforts to ensure the promised probe goes ahead as Japan wants.

North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.

Five of the abductees returned home but Pyongyang said - without producing credible evidence - that eight had died, provoking an uproar in Japan.

The subject is highly charged in Japan, where there are suspicions that perhaps even hundreds of others were taken.

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