OSAKA – From North Korean missiles to scallop and sea urchin farming, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a wide range of items on their agenda when the two meet Thursday in Moscow.
The summit is expected to focus on the joint economic development of the four Russian-held islands off the coast of Hokkaido that are claimed by both countries — known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
The four islands include Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.
But North Korea’s missile program and regional fears of another nuclear test have escalated the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang, sparking concerns in the region of a possible conflict — an issue Abe and Putin are expected to address.
At the “two-plus-two” meeting last month, foreign and defense ministers from Japan and Russia agreed to strongly urge North Korea to refrain from further provocations. The two sides pledged to work together in reaching out to North Korea and China for a diplomatic solution.
While no agreement is in sight on Japan’s long-standing demands for the return of the disputed isles, the two leaders are expected to approve economic aid and development, and to hammer out terms that will enable easier access to former residents of the disputed territory, who are now living in Japan, to visit their ancestors’ graves.
The deal will likely include terms allowing the Japanese government to charter an airplane from a private Russian airline to support ancestral visits sometime this summer. The plane will depart Nakashibetsu airport in Hokkaido for Kunashiri and Etorofu and return the same day.
“I want to realize, as quickly as possible, a concrete plan for expanding the gravesite visits,” Abe told Komeito president Natsuo Yamaguchi earlier this week.
A long-standing bilateral agreement provides three frameworks for Japanese citizens to visit the Northern Territories without visas — including visits to family gravesites. However, the islands are currently accessible to the elderly former residents only by boat, and bad weather can make such travel difficult; trips can be postponed, sometimes for years, or cut short. This has spurred the demand for chartered flights.
In addition, Abe and Putin will probably OK a joint survey team of fishing, tourism, medical and environmental experts to study the Northern Territories this summer.
At a meeting last month between Japanese and Russian officials on joint economic development, Japan proposed further cooperation in 30 areas, including increased tourism, sea urchin and scallop cultivation, and medical assistance.
Russia suggested joint efforts at salmon and trout cultivation, construction of wind power facilities, as well as housing construction and repair. Both countries discussed cooperation on fish canning facilities and tapping the geothermal electricity potential of the islands.
Abe and Putin will likely revisit these proposals.
Japanese firms eager to participate in joint economic development have expressed concerns about the extent to which they will have to operate entirely under the jurisdiction of Russian law — in particular, tax laws. They have also been looking into the status of specific investment regulations in the Northern Territories.
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