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North Korea crisis to dominate Abe-Putin summit, pushing isles row aside

Tokyo set to press Moscow for stricter sanctions on oil, trade

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on Thursday, with a territorial row usually at the center of such talks likely sidelined by tensions over North Korea.

Abe hopes to win Moscow’s support in strengthening pressure on North Korea through stricter U.N. Security Council sanctions following Pyongyang’s nuclear test Sunday — its sixth and most powerful to date.

Through repeated telephone talks, Abe has agreed with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to “maximize” pressure on North Korea. “Japan will take the lead to strengthen pressure on North Korea with the international community,” Abe told a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday.

But Russia, even as it condemned the nuclear test, has said more pressure on North Korea will risk aggravating the current situation. “We urge all interested parties to promptly return to dialogue and negotiations, the only possible way for a comprehensive settlement of the Korean Peninsula problems, including the nuclear problem,” said a Russian Foreign Ministry statement released after the nuclear test.

Japanese and U.S. officials want a new Security Council resolution featuring additional sanctions against North Korea, such as cutting off oil supplies and curbing North Korea’s trade revenue to prevent the country from pursuing its missile and nuclear ambitions. Such a resolution would require consent from Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

One of the focal points of the upcoming summit is whether Abe can convince Putin to agree to harsher U.N. sanctions and to strictly implement existing ones, including a halt in accepting more North Korean laborers — another source of foreign currency for North Korea.

The upcoming summit in the Russian Far East port city, to be held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, will be the third this year and 19th overall between the two leaders, according to Japanese officials.

They are also set to discuss how to advance joint economic activities on a group of Russia-held, Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido — an initiative the leaders agreed to launch at their summit in December 2016.

Japan hopes the activities will pave the way for a resolution of the territorial row over the islands and the signing of a post-World War II peace treaty, while Russia seeks to attract Japanese investment on the islands.

As the two sides remain far apart in their stance on sovereignty over the islands, they would need to work out a plan that does not result in compromises by either side or raise judicial problems.

Moscow’s own plan to develop the islands is also a point of contention. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an order in August to create a special economic zone in a village on Shikotan, one of the disputed islands, and called for foreign investment.

The development would apparently strengthen Russia’s control of the disputed islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which were seized by the Soviet Union after Japan surrendered in August 1945, ending World War II. They are called the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

Abe and Putin will likely discuss economic cooperation under the eight-point cooperation package that covers areas such as energy, health care, cultural exchanges and urban development.

The leaders will also confirm progress on facilitating trips by former Japanese residents to the islands to visit their ancestors’ graves, in particular by allowing the use of chartered aircraft in addition to travel by sea.