Tokyo on Thursday moved quickly to reaffirm official policy calling for the return of four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, a day after former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori suggested a compromise that would leave one in Moscow’s hands.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the government’s stance that all four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — must be returned.

Speaking on a TV news program Wednesday, Mori said the national border with Russia could be drawn north of Kunashiri Island, which would leave Etorofu — the largest of the four — in Russian territory.

Mori is to visit Russia, perhaps as soon as next month, as a special envoy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

On Wednesday, Mori called for “a realistic approach” to solve the long-standing territorial dispute, which has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a peace treaty for more than 67 years, since the end of World War II.

“We will firmly maintain our basic policy, which is to confirm that the four islands belong to Japan and thereafter conclude a peace treaty with Russia. Then we can be flexible over the timing of actual reversions of those islands,” Suga told a news conference Thursday.

“Negotiations over the Northern Territories (Russian-held islands) will be held between the two governments,” Suga said, adding that Mori acknowledged on the TV program that the final decision on the matter is Abe’s to make. “When dispatched as the special envoy, (Mori) will of course convey policies of the government,” he said.

The government reportedly plans to dispatch Mori as the special envoy as early as February. Mori is considered to have close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Abe meanwhile was considering visiting Russia in April or May following developments in negotiations over the territorial issue, Kyodo News reported.

The territorial dispute has long remained a diplomatic thorn in the side of Japan-Russia relations. Soviet forces seized the islands after Japan’s August 1945 surrender. Their Japanese inhabitants were subsequently evicted.

Under the terms of the 1943 Cairo Declaration, spelling out the Allies’ goals for the postwar order, “Japan will . . . be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” But the four islands had all belonged to Japan since the late 19th century, and there were no disputes over them until the Soviet invasion. It is on this basis that Tokyo argues Russia’s occupation of them is illegal.

Many Japanese leaders, including Mori, have tried to resolve the territorial issue through compromise.

But officially Tokyo has maintained all four of the islands should be returned.

During the same news conference Thursday, Suga also officially announced that Abe will visit Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia from Jan. 16 through 19 to hold summits with leaders of those countries.

Suga called the three countries “a center of economic growth” in the region, and said Japan can benefit from their growth through deeper economic ties.

Abe had planned to make Washington his first destination abroad since becoming prime minister, to meet with President Barack Obama in a show of Japan-U.S. security solidarity.

But Obama’s tight schedule scuppered the plan, dealing Abe his first diplomatic setback since taking office last month.

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