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Japan, North Korea Take on Tough Issues in Rare Bilateral Talks

Japan and North Korea have opened rare one-on-one talks in Mongolia, as part of a broader diplomatic effort to end the North's nuclear weapons programs. Although the two countries are seeking a normal relationship, some bitter issues from history pose major diplomatic challenges. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.

As talks between North Korea and Japan got under way Wednesday in Ulaanbaator, the Mongolian capital, Pyongyang's envoy tried to set a tone of optimism.

Ambassador Song Il Ho says North Korea will actively engage in the talks with hope for progress.

The bilateral talks are taking place in the context of the larger, multinational process aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. The United States, China, Russia, and South Korea are also involved in the six-party negotiations.

A February agreement among the six nations says if North Korea ends its nuclear ambitions, it can look forward to eventual diplomatic normalization with Tokyo.

Imperial Japan governed the entire Korean peninsula harshly as a colony from 1910 to 1945, and North Korea has demanded billions of dollars in compensation. Some of that money may begin to flow if ties are resumed - although it may be termed "aid" instead of compensation - helping to ease Pyongyang's severe economic shortages.

However, Tokyo's envoy said Wednesday North Korea's history of abducting Japanese citizens during the Cold War remains a major obstacle to progress.

Ambassador Yoshiki Mine says there will be no normalization of ties unless the abduction issue is resolved. He says, we want North Korea to understand our stance, and will urge them to take action.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted in 2002 that the country's agents had abducted 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970's and early '80's. Five of the 13 have been allowed to return to Japan, and Kim says the rest have died. The Japanese say many more were taken, and that Pyongyang has not been forthright in resolving the issue.

As a diplomatic enticement, Japanese officials have suggested they may provide emergency aid to North Korean areas hit hard by recent flooding. However, there has been no formal announcement to that effect at this week's talks.

The two countries have scheduled a second and final day of meetings for Thursday.