ROME - The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia agreed Friday to cooperate closely toward progress in talks to settle a territorial row that has blocked the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the countries’ World War II hostilities.
After their meeting in Rome, Taro Kono told reporters he had “in-depth” discussions with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, on the path to concluding a bilateral peace treaty.
But Kono declined to comment on the substance of the talks, including whether any progress has been made on the territorial dispute.
The two ministers met as the decades-old row appears to be taking a new turn, with the two countries’ leaders agreeing recently to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 joint declaration that envisions the return to Japanese control of Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets off Hokkaido.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit to be held in Argentina this coming week. Abe also hopes to visit Russia in late January to have further talks with Putin.
The territorial dispute involves Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group which make up what is known in Japan as the Northern Territories. The islands were seized by the former Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in 1945. In Russia the islands are known as the Southern Kurils.
The Japanese government has long insisted that issues concerning the “attribution of the four islands” must be settled before a peace treaty is signed. But Abe has recently hinted that he is focusing first on the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which are referred to in the 1956 declaration.
Kono is visiting Rome to attend an annual international gathering called Mediterranean Dialogues that brings together government officials and experts on foreign and defense issues.
Also on Friday, Kono met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart. During the meeting Kono welcomed Iran’s continued implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers despite the United States having reimposed sanctions against Tehran.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump put sanctions earlier this month on Iran’s energy, banking, shipbuilding and shipping sectors in an effort to compel Tehran to end its nuclear program and support for militant groups in the Middle East.
Under the 2015 deal struck between Iran and six major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States under Barack Obama — Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.