Photo/IllutrationDowntown Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Behind the scenes, Japanese officials are still talking to North Korea on ways to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted decades ago.

It emerges that secret talks on the issue have recently been held in Mongolia and elsewhere.

Although Pyongyang keeps railing against Tokyo through its official news outlets, it is keeping the channels of communication open.

As yet though, there has been no breakthrough for a Japan-North Korea summit.

Shoichiro Ishikawa, head of the Secretariat of the Headquarters for the Abduction Issue that was set up at the Cabinet Secretariat, met with Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador for normalizing relations with Japan, in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, in late October, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

It remains unclear what they discussed.

But it appears that the Japanese side repeated its longstanding call for the repatriation of all Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents, while Song reiterated Pyongyang’s position that Tokyo should give priority to shelling out compensation for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Japan settled the issue when it normalized diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1965, but grievances held by North Korea have never been addressed as the two countries do not have diplomatic ties.

Turning to the secret meetings, the source noted that Shigeru Kitamura, director of the Japanese government’s Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, met with Kim Song Hye, head of the United Front Department’s tactical office at the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in July and thereafter.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated repeatedly that he intends to resolve the abduction issue while he holds office. The Japanese government suspects that at least 17 Japanese nationals were spirited to North Korea to train spies in the reclusive country in Japanese language and customs. Five have been repatriated.

It appears that the Japanese government, while not talking openly about overtures it has been making, is trying to keep all channels of communication open with North Korea.

Song is a senior official with North Korea's Foreign Ministry, which is tasked with holding working-level talks with Japan.

The head of the United Front Department is Kim Yong Chol, who is also vice chairman of the party and reputedly knows the extent of the abductions that took place in the 1970s and '80s.

Song apparently told a source, who recently visited North Korea, that he had no role in the talks between Kim Song Hye and Japanese delegates.

At a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly stated that he is ready to have dialogue with Japan at the appropriate time to explore ways to improve bilateral ties.

But so far he has not signaled when he might be prepared to hold dialogue with Japan.