National / Politics

Top diplomats from Japan and Russia meet in Tokyo, keen on promoting joint economic projects on disputed islands

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia agreed Wednesday to further promote negotiations over joint economic projects on four disputed islands off Hokkaido ahead of a planned visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Moscow in May.

Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov called their three-hour meeting in Tokyo constructive, although they announced no specific progress.

“To achieve concrete results in Prime Minister Abe’s possible trip to Russia in May, we discussed about many issues left between the two nations. Most importantly a peace treaty,” Kono said.

“Building a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between the peoples of the two nations is an important step toward concluding a peace treaty,” he added.

“We discussed in detail about the planned joint economic projects,” Lavrov, who arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday, said. “The talk was positive and constructive.”

The islands off Hokkaido, which Tokyo refers to as the Northern Territories, were seized from Japan by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The dispute has prevented the two nations from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their wartime hostilities.

Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a 2016 summit to conduct joint economic activity on and around the four islands under a special framework that will not undermine their respective legal positions on the sovereignty of the islands.

Since then, a series of vice ministerial meetings have been held, most recently in February, but no real progress has been made.

Abe has called the planned joint economic projects an “important step to sign a peace treaty,” saying that its concept sets out a new future-oriented vision for the islands.

However, Lavrov on Wednesday said that Japan’s beefing up of its missile shield is becoming an obstacle that could prevent Russia from taking concrete steps toward signing a treaty.

The Russian diplomat said Japan’s scheduled introduction of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile interceptor is a threat to Russian security.

Kono responded by saying that Japan’s missile shield is its own and not the U.S.’s. He said it is “exclusively for defensive purposes,” and poses no threat to Russian security.

It was announced that a strategic dialogue involving vice ministerial diplomats will take place April 19 in Moscow, and that a security dialogue is scheduled to be held in Tokyo in May.

The two ministers also discussed allowing former Japanese residents of the northern islands to visit their ancestral graves. Such a visit also took place last year.

Regarding the upcoming summits between South Korea, North Korea and the U.S., the two ministers agreed to work together in close cooperation to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

Kono stressed the need to maintain maximum pressure on Pyongyang, while Lavrov said the joint Russian-Chinese road map is crucial in settling the crisis over North Korea’s weapons program.

Talks on the North Korean issue continued during a working lunch held soon after the news conference, said a Foreign Ministry official speaking on the condition of anonymity, declining to provide further details.

The two ministers’ meeting also involved a discussion over the Salisbury, England, poisoning incident, where ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with a nerve agent.

Lavrov denied Russian involvement and asked for Kono’s assistance in forwarding two questions to the U.K.

The questions regard the whereabouts of Skripal and his daughter and why the U.K. is jumping to conclusions despite announcing that the investigation will last for months.

Lavrov is scheduled to leave Japan Thursday afternoon.

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