Talks begin in Beijing on Saturday between diplomats from Japan and North Korea. It is the first time the two nations will meet under a new format in which contentious issues are separated into three tracks. The talks are expected to last five days and Japan is insisting on progress.
Japan on Friday issued a warning to North Korea that progress must be made at their talks, which, among other things, will cover the emotional issue of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters Japan will negotiate firmly at the talks, which begin in Beijing Saturday. He said that if there is no breakthrough on the fate of Japanese abducted by North Korea then Tokyo will have to consider various options.
Some analysts say that may refer to economic sanctions - something that North Korea has previously said it would consider tantamount to a declaration of war. It also could indicate that Japan will take other action, such as postponing talks on normalizing relations with Pyongyang or on granting it aid.
But Professor Peter Hayes, the director of the Nautilus Institute at Australia's R.M.I.T. University, says North Korea is likely to be little concerned about the threat of sanctions. "Japan is now a relatively small economic player for North Korea," he noted. "China is now much more important economically than Japan, and, so to that extent, there's a certain 'hollow drum' being beaten by Japan here."
The Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony for the first half of the 20th century until Japan's defeat in World War II led to the creation of a communist North allied with the Soviet Union and a republic in the South protected by the United States.
North Korea has long desired diplomatic relations with Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has made two trips to Pyongyang, has said that is not possible unless North Korea fully accounts for the Japanese citizens it kidnapped and returns any still alive.
North Korea apparently used the kidnapped victims to teach spies the Japanese language and the country's customs. There are allegations Pyongyang also snatched people from other countries.
Five of 13 known abductees returned to Japan in 2002, and North Korea said the other eight are dead. But Tokyo wants more evidence about their fate, as well as of three other people Japan contends were kidnapped.
This round of talks will use a new format; one group will discuss the abduction issue, a second will cover normalizing relations while a third will deal with the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The Nautilus Institute's Peter Hayes predicts the three-track approach may prove more fruitful than lumping all the issues together. "It's rather like a snarl of ropes that are all tangled together," he explained. "If you try and solve it by just pulling on one rope to get things untangled, you won't get very far. Where as if you try and ease the tension on all of the ropes that are tangled together, you tend to be able to get things sorted out."
Japanese media on Friday reported that Japan also hopes to convince North Korea to return to the stalled talks on ending its nuclear programs. North Korea has said it will not continue with those discussions until Washington lifts sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for alleged counterfeiting of U.S. currency and other illicit activities. The talks also involve China, South Korea and Russia.