MOSCOW – Japan and Russia agreed Tuesday to join forces to realize the denuclearization of North Korea and step up security cooperation, as the two sides remained at odds over Tokyo’s planned introduction of new missile defense systems.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met with their Russian counterparts, Sergey Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu, for the two countries’ third “two-plus-two” meeting, following respective one-on-one talks between their foreign and defense ministers.
The meeting came amid an ongoing detente on the Korean Peninsula after the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in June, with no missiles launched by Pyongyang this year, in contrast to 2017, when it repeatedly test-fired ballistic missiles and conducted a nuclear test.
Tokyo, meanwhile, is hopeful that cooperation with Moscow on North Korea and the strengthening of security dialogue will help settle a decades-old territorial spat over Russian-held isles off Hokkaido.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he is seeking a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but will not consider economic cooperation or normalization of ties without a resolution to the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.
During the two-plus-two session, the Japanese ministers sought cooperation from Russia in settling the abduction issue at an early date, officials said.
Meanwhile, Lavrov told reporters after the meeting that the Russian side reiterated its concern about Japan’s plan to introduce two Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in fiscal 2023. Moscow sees them as an addition to U.S. missile systems in the Asia-Pacific region.
Onodera asked for acceptance of the plan, saying Tokyo will deploy the systems “purely for national defense.” He also demanded Russia show restraint in building up military forces on the disputed islands.
The four ministers consented to holding an annual security conference involving the two countries’ foreign and defense officials at the vice-ministerial level and to arranging for a port call to be made by naval vessels of the Russian Pacific Fleet at Hakodate in Hokkaido in October.
Kono, apparently with the territorial issue in mind, stressed the importance of mutual communication to resolve bilateral problems at a news conference after the meeting, saying he wants to “develop relations between Japan and Russia in every field.”
In their one-on-one session, Kono and Lavrov concurred that Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Vladivostok and that the two foreign ministers will meet again in New York, both in September.
They also agreed to realize a visit by a Japanese fact-finding mission on Aug. 16-20 to the islands controlled by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo in a bid to work toward joint development of the disputed isles.
Russia and Japan held their first two-plus-two talks in November 2013 and second in March 2017, both in Tokyo. The hiatus of over three years was due to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine in March 2014.
The third round was set when Abe and Putin met in Moscow in May, when they agreed to make renewed efforts to sign a postwar peace treaty and accelerate bilateral economic cooperation.
One of the obstacles to signing a peace treaty is the dispute over the contested islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group off Hokkaido.
The islands were seized by the former Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II in August 1945.
It is the first time a Japanese defense chief has visited Russia since January 2006.