SHENYANG, China (AP) — Japanese and North Korean Red Cross officials met in China on Monday in what Japan hopes will be a step toward talks on the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Red Cross meeting dealt with a different issue, the return of the remains of 21,600 Japanese who died in Korea during the chaos at the end of World War II.
Foreign Ministry officials from both countries also attended the meeting and held informal talks on the side, Japan's Kyodo News service reported, citing an unidentified Japanese official.
The two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, have not had formal government talks since November 2012. Japan sees a resolution of the abduction issue as a crucial step toward normalizing ties with North Korea.
North Korea allowed five kidnapped Japanese to return home in 2002, but Japan believes at least a dozen others also were kidnapped and wants them returned, if they are still alive.
Ri Ho Rim, secretary general of the North Korean Red Cross Society, described Monday's talks in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang as "productive," adding that the two sides agreed on the need "to meet continuously to resolve the issue of Japanese remains."
Osamu Tasaka, director general of the international department of the Japanese Red Cross, told reporters that each side would take back what they had discussed for further consideration.
The last time the two Red Cross Societies met was in 2012. Since then, delegations of Japanese family members have visited the graves of their relatives in North Korea nine times. Some are buried on hills in the outskirts of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945 and an estimated 34,600 Japanese soldiers, government officials and family members died of hunger or disease there at the end of World War II. Of those, the remains of 13,000 have been repatriated.
The 2012 Red Cross talks also led to the first government-to-government meeting between Japan and North Korea in four years. The brief warming of relations came to an end after North Korea launched a rocket in December 2012.
The latest talks are taking place as North Korea also pushes for improved ties with South Korea. Outreach by Pyongyang toward Seoul and Tokyo could potentially complicate efforts by Washington to coordinate the diplomatic response toward North Korea over its nuclear program.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. remains in close coordination with Japan on North Korea policy. "We're not opposed to remains recovery operations as a humanitarian effort," she said.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.