Japan's government says talks on opening diplomatic relations with North Korea may begin in the coming months. This comes as the Japanese prime minister prepares to meet with South Korea's president, and as a leading U.S. arms control diplomat is in Seoul to discuss strategy on dealing with the communist North.

Japanese government officials on Tuesday said they are seeing positive responses from North Korea on issues that would clear the way for talks on establishing diplomatic ties. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters that conditions to start negotiations are falling into place. The two countries have never had diplomatic relations.

The biggest barrier to holding talks has been the plight of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970's and 80's. One chapter in that issue ended Sunday when a former abductee, Hitomi Soga, arrived in Japan with her two North Korean-born daughters and her husband, an alleged U.S. Army deserter she married in North Korea.

Mr. Koizumi goes to the South Korean island of Cheju on Wednesday for a two-day summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. The talks come amid signs that Washington is working more closely with Tokyo and Seoul on resolving the nuclear impasse with Pyongyang.

The United States wants North Korea to immediately end all its efforts to build nuclear weapons, but the communist state insists on security guarantees and economic aid first.

Despite three rounds of six-nation talks in China on the issue, no agreement has been reached.

The United States has sent its top arms negotiator to Seoul and Tokyo this week. U.S. Undersecretary of State James Bolton is one of the Bush administration's most outspoken critics of the North, and in the past has irritated Seoul with his harsh comments about Pyongyang.

Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis in Seoul, says the South Korean government does not want to annoy Pyongyang. "Probably that's because we place top priority on inter-Korean relationships," he says. "This is also the reason why we have problems with our alliance with the United States."

Also Tuesday, two convoys of South Korean trucks loaded with rice crossed the heavily fortified border with North Korea.

The shipment of two thousand tons is the first consignment of 400,000 tons of rice Seoul has promised to deliver to its impoverished neighbor, with whom it technically remains at war.

Officials estimate it will take 13 weeks to deliver one-quarter of the food aid by road. The rest is to be sent by ship.