Red Cross officials from North Korea and Japan agreed Tuesday to address key humanitarian issues that have divided the two countries. The landmark deal could pave the way for better relations between Japan and North Korea.

Officials at the Japanese embassy in Beijing have said North Korea pledged to step up search for 11 Japanese nationals that Tokyo says were kidnapped by North Korean agents.

In return, Tokyo has agreed to look into the cases of 259 Koreans who disappeared following decades of Japan's colonial occupation of Korea that ended in 1945.

Pyongyang also agreed to allow nearly 2,000 Japanese women with North Korean spouses to visit their homeland this summer, if they wish.

The surprise agreement could help remove barriers that have stalled negotiations between the two countries for years. Four previous rounds of talks since 1997 yielded little and ended abruptly as North Korea refused to even discuss the issue of the missing Japanese.

Pyongyang has consistently denied any involvement in the missing Japanese who Tokyo claims were kidnapped by North Korean agents to teach their spies about Japanese language and culture.

The Beijing talks were organized through the International Red Cross because the two countries have no formal diplomatic ties.

Pyongyang's unexpected willingness to negotiate is seen as a sign that North Korea is interested in re-establishing ties with other countries.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il halted contacts with the United States and its allies - Japan and South Korea - after President Bush took office in January 2001.

The Red Cross officials said another round of talks would take place in June and that details for that meeting would be released at a later date.