STOCKHOLM (AFP) - North Korea and Japan kicked off three days of talks in Stockholm Monday, with the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped decades ago by Pyongyang set to top the agenda.
The meeting in the Swedish capital takes place after the two countries held their first official talks in 16 months in China in March, addressing a range of subjects including the abduction issue and North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
Prior to the discussions at a small Stockholm hotel, the two delegations - eight on either side - appeared briefly in front of the media, the majority Japanese reporters flown in for the occasion.
Wearing stern expressions and making no eye contact with each other, the two delegations welcomed the opportunity to talk.
"Over the next three days, we want to hold forward-looking talks, based on issues we raised at the government talks in Beijing," said Japanese chief delegate Junichi Ihara, the director general of the foreign ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.
"We also want to make an effort to push for a resolution of various issues as much as possible by frankly and seriously discussing broad matters of mutual interest."
His North Korean counterpart Song Il Ho, wearing a bright red and gold badge with the image of Kim Jong Un and his grandfather Kim Il Sung, said that "we hope to hold sincere, deep and wide-ranged talks on relations between North Korea and Japan."
The Japanese side is expected to tell the North Koreans that it is willing to lift some economic sanctions imposed on the hermit state if it is convinced that Pyongyang is making a serious effort to investigate what happened to those kidnapped and still unaccounted for, Kyodo News said earlier, citing unnamed sources.
North Korea's approach to its dealings with Japan appears to have softened in recent months, especially on the emotive issue of abductions.
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 were allowed to return to Japan but Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.
"Needless to say, the abduction issue is one of the nation's biggest concerns," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said last week when announcing the Stockholm meeting.
"We would like to draw their positive response."
Sweden is considered a rather unusual choice of venue, but it is seen as a neutral country by both sides, observers said. It has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since 1973, and represents the interests of US citizens in North Korea in the absence of diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang.
During the March meeting, the Japanese side protested against the communist state's launch of ballistic missiles and its threat to conduct more nuclear tests.
Japan may reiterate this in Stockholm, but it is unlikely to make any progress, since North Korea prefers to deal with the United States on this issue, according to analysts.
Pyongyang for its part renewed its demand that Tokyo compensate Koreans for their suffering during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.