Building confidence and stepping up cooperation with Russia through high-level dialogue are the keys to resolving the long-standing territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, according to Shunji Yanai, newly appointed foreign vice minister.

“Relations between Japan and Russia have become favorable compared with those in the past because of efforts (by the two sides) over the past several years, and discussions at the top level should be further strengthened,” Yanai told a news conference on July 1.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed late last month to regular reciprocal visits and to set up a hot line between Tokyo and Moscow to improve bilateral relations. Hashimoto proposed they meet in the Russian Far East this year. He said that gaining the understanding of the Russian public on the territorial issue is also important because the Russian people are not always aware there is a problem.

Japan and the then Soviet Union restored diplomatic ties in 1956, but the dispute over the islands, which were occupied by the Soviet Union immediately after World War II, has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to formally end wartime hostilities. Yanai said he hopes to expedite fishery negotiations with Russia because a conclusion would lead to safe operations in the waters surrounding the disputed islands and further goodwill.

Regarding the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Yanai said Japan needs to cooperate in bringing about dialogue between South and North Korea to establish stability. He welcomed an agreement between the United States and the two Koreas to hold a preparatory meeting for proposed four-way talks on the Korean Peninsula aimed at ending hostilities.

However, he said the agreement will not immediately lead to an extension of emergency food aid to famine-threatened North Korea. Japan has been reluctant to provide aid partly because of alleged abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, as well as smuggling of stimulant drugs by a North Korean ship.

Yanai said ties with the United States and China should also be strengthened because the connection with the U.S. is the “infrastructure” of Japanese diplomacy. Japan and China will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic ties this year.

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