TOKYO : Japan and North Korea are moving to restart formal government-level talks, a foreign ministry official said Thursday, after a shift over the contentious issue of Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese citizens.

The step forward came as diplomats held informal talks on the sidelines of a two-day humanitarian meeting in the Chinese city of Shenyang between Red Cross officials from the two countries, the Japanese official said.

“They have agreed to make arrangements in an effort to reopen government-level consultations,” she told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Talks were suspended in late 2012 when Tokyo reiterated its demand that Pyongyang come clean on the abduction issue, which has long hampered efforts to improve ties in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

The talks were officially called off in December 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range missile, drawing international condemnation. Formal ties with Japan could bring huge economic benefits to the impoverished state.

North Korea outraged Japan when it admitted more than a decade ago that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.

Five of the abductees have been repatriated to Japan along with their North Korean families. But Pyongyang has insisted, without producing solid evidence, that the eight others are dead.

Last week, the ageing parents of Megumi Yokota - who was abducted on a spy boat in 1977 at the age of 13 - were allowed to meet the kidnapped woman’s daughter for the first time, in neutral Mongolia.

Yokota, who was taken while on her way home from school, has remained a painful symbol of the abduction issue. Her parents’ meeting with their granddaughter was welcomed as a step in the right direction.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week hailed the “change” in Pyongyang’s attitude, which eased off its earlier demands that any meeting should be held in North Korea.

“We should firmly grasp the change and make it lead us toward a solution of the abduction issue,” Abe told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, adding that “we will work for a complete solution with consistent dialogue and pressure”.

In 2004 North Korea handed over cremated remains it claimed were Yokota’s. However, Tokyo said DNA tests conducted in Japan proved the claim to be untrue.

Her parents, aged 81 and 78, had previously refused to meet their granddaughter, now 26, for fear of being used in North Korea’s efforts to establish her mother’s alleged death as fact.

Japan has held firm in its position that Yokota and the other missing could still be alive, along with other vanished citizens suspected to have been kidnapped by North Korea.