Japan lodged an official protest Thursday with Moscow and Seoul after South Korean boats started fishing for saury around Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Shigeo Uetake protested South Korea’s fishing in the area, under a Russian-South Korean fishery accord, in separate meetings with Vassili Dobrovolsky, Russian charge d’affaires to Japan, and South Korean Ambassador Choi Sang Yong, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Panov is on vacation.

Choi told reporters after meeting with Uetake: “South Korea’s position is consistent. It is a fishery issue and not a territorial one.”

Dobrovolsky said he explained to Uetake that the matter is purely commercial and does not affect the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia.

Uetake urged Seoul to halt fishing operations off the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islets and asked Russia to rescind its permission for the fishing, Japanese officials said.

Japan’s protests followed Seoul’s announcement Wednesday evening that 26 South Korean saury fishing boats started fishing around the disputed islands.

An official of South Korean Maritime Affairs and the Fisheries Ministry said work in the area started at around 6 p.m. Wednesday and that the vessels were looking for a shoal of fish. The South Korean boats were given the go-ahead from Russia.

Japan has repeatedly sought to stop the operation, and plans to continue negotiations with Seoul and Moscow to prevent South Korea from fishing there during next year’s season and beyond, according to the officials.

Under their accord struck in December, Russia is allowing South Korean boats to catch 15,000 tons of saury around the islands between July 15 and Nov. 15.

Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka expressed regret in a statement Wednesday that South Korean vessels have begun fishing in the area and said Japan will continue to demand “sincere responses” from Russia and South Korea. , bearing in mind that the disputed islands belong to Japan and that the area around them is within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Tokyo maintains that Moscow should not enter into a fishing pact with a third country involving waters around the islands and believes the fishing accord will hurt Japan’s position in territorial negotiations.

Japan in June banned South Korean saury fishing boats from operating off the Sanriku region in northeastern Japan, contrary to an earlier agreement, in retaliation over the deal with Russia to fish off the disputed islands.

The disputed isles were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II. The subsequent row over their ownership has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a bilateral peace treaty.

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