• Kyodo

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A group of government officials and private-sector experts concluded their first economic study of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido, saying possibilities had been spotted for joint activity with the Russians.

“I am seeing big potential for future development,” said tour leader Eiichi Hasegawa, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a news conference on Saturday upon returning to Nemuro, Hokkaido.

The isles, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, are held by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo.

The five-day survey included visits to 64 sites on three of the four islands, including a seafood processing plant and geothermal power plant. Based on the tour, Japan is expected to draw up a priority list of collaboration ideas after examining their financial feasibility.

Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a hot-spring summit in December to begin joint activities on the isles. Tokyo hopes the activities will pave the way for settling the decades-old territorial row, while Russia is said to be seeking investment from Japan.

The two leaders are expected to accelerate their talks on joint economic activities during a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany next weekend. But the talks could face rough going because any joint activity would be premised on setting up a “special system” that does not undermine the legal standing of either country’s claims to sovereignty over the isles.

“Through our survey trip, I was reminded of the need to push forward discussions on the legal framework,” Hasegawa said at the news conference.

Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group were seized by the Soviet Union shortly after Japan surrendered in August 1945. The ensuing territorial row has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

Departing from Nemuro port on Tuesday, the group visited Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan to survey sites including an aquaculture farm for salmon and trout, harbor facilities, a hotel construction site and a hospital.

From Russia, the group was accompanied by Sakhalin Gov. Oleg Kozhemyako, who administers the contested isles. He explained local demand and offered his views on the feasibility of the activities proposed.

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