North Korea has held secret talks with Japan in what is believed to be their first contact since the death of long-time leader Kim Jong-il, Japanese media said, as Pyongyang's closest ally China and South Korea vowed to work closely on denuclearising the North.
Amid a series of diplomatic contacts over North Korea in China, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing to discuss ways to preserve stability on the peninsula as the unpredictable 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 two 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, according to media reports.
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 normalising diplomatic relations, one source said.
Japan and the secretive North have not held intergovernmental talks since August 2008.
DENUCLEARISATION TOP PRIORITY
Lee's office said in a statement after his meeting with Wen that the two shared the view that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as well as peace and stability are of paramount importance and agreed to continue to closely consult and cooperate each other.
South Korea and China also plan to set up a hotline between their foreign ministers, South Korean media reported.
Separately, the nuclear envoys from China and South Korea met on the sidelines of Lee's state visit to discuss denuclearising the North, which has twice tested nuclear devices.
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 nudged Lee to improve ties with the reclusive 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 were preconditions set by Seoul and Washington for resuming the six-way talks, which offer the North aid and diplomatic contacts in return for disabling its nuclear weapons programme.
South Korea has said it is willing to hold more talks with the North to try to restart the six-way 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 that they will consider giving up its nuclear weapons programme.
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.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)