But even before they sit down at the negotiating table in Beijing, the former bitter enemies sparred over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, the main sticking point in their talks.
The talks between foreign ministry officials from the two countries come after North Korea agreed in principle in September to dismantle its nuclear arms programmes in exchange for aid and better ties with Washington and Tokyo.
The Beijing meetings are expected to last at least two days and will be the first comprehensive talks between Japan and North Korea since October 2002, when the two sides met in Kuala Lumpur, officials and analysts said.
A failure to improve ties could hamper the six-party process on North Korea’s nuclear arms programmes because Tokyo is reluctant to give large-scale aid to Pyongyang in return for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
The next round of six-party talks among North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States is likely to take place next week.
Tokyo has offered full-scale financial aid to impoverished North Korea, but only after diplomatic ties are established.
“If North Korea is to receive everything it wants, it will have to improve ties with Japan and the United States”
“As long as negotiations between Japan and North Korea are stalled, it is difficult for the six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear issue to move forward,” said Hajime Izumi, a Korea expert at the University of Shizuoka near Tokyo.
“If North Korea is to receive everything it wants, it will have to improve ties with Japan and the United States.”
Japanese officials said Tokyo would press for progress on the emotional abduction issue and would try to win a firm pledge from Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear arms and missile programmes.
Relatives of the abductees and their political supporters want Japan to harden its stance and impose economic sanctions on North Korea to force the reclusive communist state to shed more light on the abductees.
Pyongyang has warned that any imposition of sanctions by Japan would be tantamount to a declaration of war.