TOKYO — Japan and North Korea appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough on a bizarre legacy of the Cold War, a secret, government-ordered program that led to the abduction of more than a dozen and possibly several hundred Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s by North Korean infiltrators and spies.
After three days of talks in Stockholm last week, North Korea agreed to open a new investigation into the abductions, the biggest step forward Tokyo and Pyongyang have made in years. Questions over the fate of the abductees — some believed to still be alive — have kept relations in a deep freeze.
A resolution would be a big win for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would in return get the lifting of some sanctions and possibly increased humanitarian aid. The U.S. and South Korea, however, fear Abe could weaken diplomatic efforts for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program by focusing too much on the bilateral abduction issue.
Tokyo is as concerned as Washington and Seoul are about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but the abductions have been the biggest thorn in its relations with Pyongyang. For many Japanese, the tales of a child vanishing on her way home from school, couples grabbed off beaches and tourists nabbed while abroad have put a human face on what they see as the brutality and hostility of the North Korean regime.
Abe, known for his hawkish nationalism and his hard-line stance toward Pyongyang, has made the abductions his cause celebre. He vowed in announcing the new deal that he will not relent until "the day the families of the abduction victims can hold their loved ones in their arms."
After it confirms North Korea has set up a committee to begin investigating the abductions, Japan says it will consider humanitarian aid for North Korea and lifting some sanctions. To see that the work gets done, Japan wants to send officials to Pyongyang to monitor its progress.
The negotiations with Japan could provide important clues into Kim's leadership style and priorities. Though he has led the country since his father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011, he has spent much of his time consolidating power and following through on his father's unfinished business. But some experts in Japan believe that, following the purge of his once powerful uncle last year, Kim is now in a better position to make bolder decisions of his own.
"His style seems to be much less calculated than his father," said Atsushi Isozaki, a North Korea expert who teaches at Japan's Keio University. "He seems to be decisive, and tends to make his decisions quickly. He also seems to make rather radical decisions. I think we could see some action taken very soon."
Isozaki said the lifting of the Japanese sanctions, which are separate from U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program, will not have a major impact on the North's moribund economy but could lead to an increased stream of cash from Japan's large ethnic Korean community through travel and tourism, which Pyongyang is trying hard to promote.
"From North Korea's perspective, that's significant," he said.
But previous deals with Pyongyang have proven fragile.
After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese, mainly to train spies in Japanese language and culture. It allowed five of them to return to Japan that year, but said the others had died.
What appeared to be a major step forward then deteriorated into a mire of even deeper distrust, as Tokyo accused Pyongyang of falsifying its claims about the deaths. Tokyo reneged on its promise to send the five back, angering Pyongyang. After several years of fits and starts, North Korea agreed to reinvestigate in 2008. But it abandoned that promise as Japan tightened its sanctions over the North's missile and nuclear tests.
Japanese officials, wary over past failures, stress Pyongyang will not get any rewards until tangible results are made. The Japanese sanctions include restrictions on bilateral exchanges, limits on how much money ethnic Koreans in Japan can take on visits to North Korea, and a ban on port calls by North Korean-flagged ships.
Coming clean on the abductions could mean acknowledging far more than the handful of cases Pyongyang has already confirmed. Though the Japanese government officially recognizes 17 abductions, police and an independent investigative commission set up to examine the disappearances suggest much higher numbers.
Kazuhiro Araki, the head of the investigation commission, said the list compiled by his group has 271 names, while Japanese police claim there are 868 abductions in which North Korean involvement cannot be ruled out. Araki said he fears Tokyo, looking for a quick payoff, may settle for less than a full accounting, and that Pyongyang will offer only enough scraps to drive the sanctions away.
"There are a large number of abductees, at least 100 and possibly many more," said. "We may never get full resolution, but we must push for the utmost possible."
Abe's gambit is also risky from the diplomatic perspective.
Some allies fear Japan is breaking ranks by dealing directly with Pyongyang. Soon after the announcement, Seoul's Unification Ministry said South Korea respects Tokyo's position "from a humanitarian viewpoint," but stressed international cooperation on the nuclear issue must be maintained.
Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Washington D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Abe needs to tread carefully not to undercut coordinated pressure by Tokyo, Washington and Seoul. She added that Abe needs to get results quickly because failure could lead to deeper hostility and even heightened military tensions.
"If Pyongyang yet again plays the issue up but cannot produce credible evidence," she said, "frustration and disappointment will again color Japanese sentiments toward North Korea, and this has typically fed into a harder line on defense preparedness. ... It could all fizzle quickly and translate into even greater public antagonism in Japan."
Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge.