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Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Thursday urged Japan to tone down public criticism over an alleged Russian spy in Japan, saying the two countries should resolve the issue behind closed doors before moving on to repair ties.

Ivanov conveyed Moscow’s message during a bilateral meeting here with Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, a Japanese official said.

Both Kono and Ivanov, in New York for the annual general debate at the U.N. General Assembly, agreed that the spy incident should not derail their countries’ efforts to resolve the key irritant in bilateral ties — a long-standing territorial dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Kono told reporters he raised the spy issue with Ivanov and both of them agreed that the two countries should continue to strive to forward negotiations on the territorial row and conclude a peace treaty by year’s end.

Kono said Ivanov presented a number of proposals for boosting peace-treaty talks with Japan, including a visit to Russia by Kono and convening in Tokyo in mid-October a high-level committee to determine the border demarcation line between the two countries in the North Pacific.

Ivanov also reiterated that the two nations should arrange a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on the sidelines of a Nov. 15-16 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei.

The two sides were unable to set dates for the series of bilateral meetings due to a tight political schedule in Japan, Kono said.

But he noted he wants to visit Russia sometime between the proposed committee meeting and the APEC summit, to set the stage for the proposed meeting between Mori and Putin.

“The leaders are the ones to make a final agreement if they can and we the ministers must set the stage,” Kono said.

A new shadow was cast on uneasy Japan-Russia ties last week after Japanese police arrested Maritime Self-Defense Force Lt. Cmdr. Shigehiro Hagisaki for allegedly passing defense secrets to a Russian military attache in Tokyo.

The Russian diplomat, Victor Bogatenkov, who was identified as an intelligence officer, has since returned to Moscow, after refusing to be questioned due to his diplomatic immunity.

A Japanese government source said Ivanov demonstrated a sense of “diplomatic sincerity” in an apparent bid to soothe Tokyo’s feelings by toning down Moscow’s harsh rhetoric over the spy incident.

Earlier, Russian officials described the spy incident, which surfaced shortly after Putin’s Sept. 3-5 visit to Japan, as a conspiracy among Japanese political groups that are opposed to improving ties with Russia.

According to Japanese officials, Ivanov stressed the need for the two countries to resolve the espionage case quietly and discuss it through closed channels, adding that this was the usual routine in similar incidents involving countries like Britain and the United States.

“We should try to prevent it from hurting our sound relations,” Ivanov was quoted as saying.

While expressing his dismay, Kono also made it clear that Japan does not want the espionage case to poison overall relations, particularly bilateral efforts to resolve the territorial row and conclude a peace treaty in line with a bilateral accord reached in Krasnoyarsk, eastern Siberia, in 1997.

“As was agreed during President Putin’s visit, we must continue to do our best to realize the Krasnoyarsk agreement,” the official quoted Kono as saying.

The territorial dispute involves the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan, and the Habomai islets, all off northeastern Hokkaido. They were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

Antiresolution Russia

MOSCOW (Kyodo) Opposition to returning islands off the coast of Hokkaido to Japan has increased in Russia under the current regime, with 59 percent of respondents objecting to the idea, a poll by a Russian private research organization showed Thursday.

The Public Opinion Fund conducted the survey on 1,500 people in Russia on Sept. 9, regarding the four Russian-held islands located northeast of Hokkaido and claimed by Tokyo.

The figure opposing the return of the territories reached 76 percent in 1996, but it decreased to 60 percent in 1997 as Japan and Russia agreed that year to try to conclude by the end of 2000 a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities, according to the organization.

In spring 1999, the opposition declined to 47 percent in the survey. However, the figure rebounded to 52 percent just after Vladimir Putin, president of Russia since May, became prime minister in August 1999, the organization said.

The former Soviet Union seized the Habomai islets and the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan from Japan at the end of World War II. The territorial row has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty.

Tea prayer for peace

NEW YORK (Kyodo) Ceremonial tea master Sen Soshitsu performed a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the United Nations before 230 world dignitaries Thursday and dedicated the act to world peace.

Sen, the 15th-generation grand master of the Urasenke school of the art of tea, offered the peace prayer by ceremoniously placing a bowl of freshly brewed Japanese tea on a peace monument at the U.N. delegates lounge.

“From a tea bowl we pray for peace. This is a Japanese tradition,” Sen said in explaining the meaning of the centuries-old art of tea to the assembled guests led by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, a self-proclaimed follower of the Urasenke school, also took the stage and prayed for peace in the Japanese tradition.

“The world may face various hardships in the 21st century. When confronted with hardships, I wish everyone assembled here would recall today’s tea ceremony, where we all prayed for a more peaceful world,” Kono said in an address to the gathering.

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