North Korea has established a team to negotiate with Japan, which itself is seeking direct talks to settle many matters, sources familiar with bilateral relations said Friday.
The negotiating team was apparently established sometime between April and the historic U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12, reflecting a move by Pyongyang to explore dialogue with Tokyo in the midst of a rapid change in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea judged earlier this year that mending ties with Japan would become a future task if it moves to improve ties with the United States, South Korea, and China, the sources said.
At a plenary meeting in April of the central committee of North Korea's ruling party, the policy of pursuing active dialogue with surrounding countries was adopted, they added.
Tokyo has long sought answers about the abduction of Japanese by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and suspects the North's involvement in many more disappearances.
But no substantial progress has yet been made despite exchanges via the team, according to the sources, and prospects for making progress are clouded by the murky outlook for the ongoing denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea.
It is not known who heads the negotiating team, but Kim Yong Chol, a close aide to the North Korean leader and vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, is among the names being floated.
Japan is exploring the possibility of a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the occasion of international gatherings in September, either in the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok or New York.
After U.S. President Donald Trump met with Kim in Singapore in June, Abe, placing priority on resolving the abduction issue, expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with North Korea.
North Korea's negotiating team is believed to be playing a role in handling Pyongyang's response to Japan.
So far, the North Korean side has conveyed to Japan that it has not abandoned a 2014 bilateral agreement to reinvestigate the whereabouts of abducted Japanese nationals. But the easing of Japan's unilateral sanctions on North Korea is necessary for Pyongyang to agree to resume doing so.
In 2014, the two countries agreed that Pyongyang would reinvestigate the fates of all abduction victims. But North Korea disbanded the panel and effectively abandoned the bilateral agreement in 2016.
For its part, Japan maintains that it is ready to normalize ties and extend economic support if the abduction and other issues of concern are resolved and has relayed its willingness to hold summit talks.
But as matters now stand, North Korea officially takes the view that the abduction issue has been settled, the sources said.