SEOUL: North Korea is holding secret talks with Japan in China in what is believed to be their first contact since the death of Kim Jong-il, Japanese media reported, as nuclear envoys from South Korea and China met in Beijing on Tuesday.
Amid a series of diplomatic contacts, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak met China's leadership in Beijing to discuss ways to preserve peace and stability on the divided peninsula as the North undergoes a delicate transition of power.
Hiroshi Nakai, a former Japanese state minister in charge of the abduction issue, met the North's delegation on Monday for talks on the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 80s, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted sources as saying.
The sides are also believed to have discussed terms for restarting intergovernmental negotiations, the Mainichi Daily News reported.
Nakai's office confirmed his trip to China. A government official declined to comment on the trip.
The meeting in China is scheduled to last through Tuesday, but it could be shortened or extended depending on the North's response, media reports said.
The Japanese government regards North Korea's participation as a sign the North's new leadership "may be interested in improving relations with Japan through progress in the abduction issue," which keeps the two countries from normalizing diplomatic relations, one source said.
Japan and North Korea have not held intergovernmental talks since August 2008.
Separately, the South's foreign ministry said a meeting was underway on Tuesday between the nuclear envoys from China and South Korea to discuss denuclearizing the North. The talks were held on the sidelines of Lee's state visit.
Since Kim Jong-il's death last month, Beijing has called on regional powers to press ahead with efforts to restart aid-for-disarmament talks with Pyongyang.
On Monday, Chinese President Hu Jintao told Lee that the peninsula's stability was paramount and nudged his counterpart to improve ties with the North.
Six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia stalled about two years ago, but late last year efforts to get Pyongyang back to the negotiating table had appeared to be gaining momentum.
Just before Kim's death last month, officials from the North and the United States had held a positive round of talks in Beijing.
Media reports said at the time Pyongyang was poised to announce an agreement with Washington to suspend its uranium enrichment programme and accept U.N. nuclear monitors in exchange for food aid.
Such moves by North Korea, which has twice tested nuclear devices, were preconditions set by South Korea and the United States for resuming the six-party talks, which offer the North aid and diplomatic contacts in return for disabling its nuclear weapons program.
South Korea has said it is willing to hold more talks with the North to try to restart the six-party process.
Analysts say the impoverished North may seek to reach out for more talks in the hope of winning aid as the new leadership consolidates power, but doubt they will consider giving up its nuclear weapons program.
The state's young and untested "great successor", Kim Jong-un, appears to have made burnishing a hardline image his top priority as he seeks to win the backing of the powerful military, analysts say.