• Kyodo

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Prime Minister Taro Aso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed Wednesday to intensify efforts to resolve the decades-old territorial row over the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

They also agreed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will visit Japan in May, Aso said after the summit in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, capital of Sakhalin Island.

Aso became the first postwar Japanese prime minister to set foot on the island.

In their talks, the two leaders agreed to “accelerate our efforts in seeking an original and unconventional approach toward solving the sovereignty dispute during our generation,” Aso said. “The issue has concerned everything between Japan and Russia and that needs a political decision (to resolve).”

During the opening of the summit, Medvedev told Aso that Russia is ready to expand reciprocal relations between Tokyo and Moscow, welcoming the recent progress in bilateral political dialogue.

Aso did not elaborate on the new approach.

As for Russia’s new requirement for Japanese to have disembarkation cards in order to enter the disputed islands, the two sides agreed to achieve a “constructive and amicable resolution” at an early stage, a Japanese government official said.

In late January, Russia demanded that Japanese government officials submit disembarkation cards when bringing in medical and other humanitarian aid to island residents, drawing renewed attention to the sovereignty dispute and threatening a visa-free exchange program set up between Japanese citizens and Russian residents of the islands.

The Aso-Medvedev talks were held ahead of an opening ceremony for Russia’s first liquefied natural gas production plant, part of the Sakhalin-2 oil and natural gas development project that involves Japanese companies.

“I believe (the project) has helped Japan to take a significant step toward building a strategic relationship with Russia in the Asia-Pacific region,” Aso told reporters.

Under the Sakhalin-2 project, in which trading houses Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Corp. are taking part, Japan would be able to secure about 7 percent of the nation’s annual LNG imports.

In an attempt to reduce its heavy dependency on LNG exports to Europe, Moscow is hoping to increase shipments to Asia.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. and eight other Japanese companies will purchase around 60 percent of the LNG output under 20-year contracts from late March.

The remainder will be exported to South Korea and the United States.

In addition to the territorial row, the two leaders are believed to have discussed a diverse range of other bilateral issues, including cooperation on developing Eastern Siberia and North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals during the 1970s and ’80s.

The territorial dispute over the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai islets has kept the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

Japan has placed high hopes on the talks as Medvedev said in his first meeting with Aso in Lima last November that he has no intention of leaving the dispute to future generations to resolve and that it can be settled if leaders show determination.

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