The cold winter darkness that swallowed up a little girl 22 years ago left a mystery that still keeps Japan and North Korea apart.

Megumi Yokota, a lively 13-year-old with black bangs and serious eyes, was walking home from school badminton practice in Niigata, on Japan's northern coast, when she disappeared Nov. 15, 1977.

The details are etched into her mother's memory: the mounting worry when Megumi did not come home on time, the anxious mother's walk to the school with no success, the fearful search of the girl's route home, calls to Megumi's friends, frantic pounding on the car windows of lovers parked by the beach. Finally, two hours later, the call to police, who combed the neighborhood over the next week with 1,000 men.

"They found nothing," said Sakie Yokota, her mother, in an interview in the Tokyo suburb where she and Megumi's father now live. No notes, no clues, no signs of violence or struggle. No word from her daughter in the two decades since.

Today, the issue of Megumi Yokota was on the table in crucial discussions between North Korea and Japan. Representatives of the two countries agreed to recommend Friday that formal negotiations begin between the governments this year on normalizing diplomatic relations, the first breakthrough in seven years.

And they are expected to announce there will be separate "humanitarian talks" on the possibility of Japanese food aid to North Korea, and on the possibility that Megumi Yokota and other Japanese are alive in Pyongyang.

The Japanese government believes that Megumi--who would now be 35--and at least nine other Japanese may have been snatched off Japan's coastline in the 1970s and 1980s and brought to North Korea in submarines or boats.

For years, Japanese officialdom kept silent about the incongruous theory. But in 1997 the National Police Agency finally acknowledged that it might be true. The abductions occurred, according to this theory, because North Korea needed tutors to teach Japanese to its spies, and needed citizens whose identities could be used by infiltrators. Some--like Megumi--may have been taken because they chanced upon North Korean agents landing on Japan's shores.

The official acknowledgment has only turned Japanese public sentiment further against North Korea. A delegation of legislators, led by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, was sent to Pyongyang this week with much public misgiving. The delegation "needs to let the North know clearly that the Japanese people harbor hard feelings," said an editorial in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper this week.

Japan feels it has plenty of grievances. It was rattled 15 months ago when Pyongyang launched a rocket over Japan. Early this year, Japanese patrol boats fired shots at suspected North Korean spy ships. Japan shares American concerns about possible secretive work in North Korea on nuclear weapons, and it complains that North Korea has not let Japanese spouses of North Koreans travel freely to visit their homeland.

But the kidnapping allegations strike closest to national pride.

"This is a matter of national sovereignty. Without solving the kidnapping issue, it is impossible to establish normal diplomatic relations," said Shunichi Suzuki, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in parliament.

The group of 16 lawmakers meeting with North Korean officials was the first such serious contact since a similar effort to normalize diplomatic relations fell apart in 1992.

The United States, with the urging of South Korea, is attempting to draw North Korea away from its isolation and public belligerence. In an agreement reached in Berlin in September, Washington said it would relax economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Stalinist regime in return for a promise that North Korea would curb its missile testing and sales.

But Japan has been slow to embrace this engagement policy. Although it made a gesture last month by resuming charter flights between Tokyo and North Korea, Japan has not resumed food aid to the starving country that it stopped in 1995.

It is unclear if the arrangement worked out in Pyongyang today will satisfy critics in Japan. Many here say North Korea should admit the kidnappings before there is any progress on other negotiations.

"North Korea really wants Japanese money and Japanese rice," said Katsumi Sato, director of the private Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo. "Japan should very clearly announce that they first have to release the kidnap victims."

Members of Murayama's Socialist party, which has pushed for improved relations, argue Japan must start negotiations first to achieve any progress.

"Our delegation is going to raise these issues," promised Masako Oowaki, a Socialist party legislator who is in the delegation, before leaving Tokyo Wednesday. But "our position is not to negotiate those issues in the beginning, but to start the negotiations first, and leave those for later."

That may not work. Murayama brought up the issue in a meeting today with Kim Yong Sun, secretary of North Korea's ruling Korean Workers Party, according to reports from Pyongyang.

"Frankly speaking, there are kidnapping suspicions," Murayama said, according to Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper. But Kim promptly rejected the term. "If one uses the term kidnapping, nothing will be solved," he said, according to the report. He agreed North Korea would search for "missing persons."

The Yokotas and other relatives now invest their hopes in the accounts of two North Korean defectors who say they knew of Japanese nationals who were abducted to North Korea.

"Not knowing is like the pain of cutting my flesh," said Sakie Yokota.