MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Japan in June, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Monday during a trip to Moscow, describing part of what Japan’s top envoy hoped would be a “historic year” in 2019.
Kono, who spoke ahead of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, met his Russian counterpart in an endeavor to inject fresh momentum into talks toward concluding a postwar peace treaty amid a decadeslong territorial dispute.
“I’d like to have an intensive discussion on a peace treaty,” Kono said at the outset of the meeting.
“With an eye to making the year 2019 a fruitful and historic one, my hope is to work with Minister Lavrov to proceed with our work,” Kono said.
The meeting is the first since Kono and Lavrov were tapped by their leaders in December to oversee the peace treaty talks.
Lavrov, for his part, expressed his desire to elevate bilateral relations to a “higher level” but he also urged Tokyo to fulfill a promise between Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to carry out talks without “distorting past agreements.”
The meeting was the first since Kono and Lavrov were tapped by their leaders in December to oversee the peace treaty talks.
They were tasked with identifying and discussing each side’s concerns and laying the groundwork for a planned summit next week between Abe and Putin in Russia.
Abe and Putin agreed in November to step up talks based on a 1956 joint declaration. The document mentions the transfer of two of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — to Japan by the Soviet Union following the conclusion of a peace treaty.
The agreement between Abe and Putin during a summit in Singapore in November, to negotiate on the basis of the 1956 document, has led to the view that Japan will focus on the transfer of the two Russian-held islands first, despite its long-standing policy of seeking to resolve the status of all four islands.
Abe has made it a priority to settle diplomatic issues outstanding since the end of World War II, and the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia by resolving the standoff over the islands is one of them.
The Japanese prime minister has held 24 summit talks with Putin, and is believed to be seeking a broad agreement in June when Putin had been expected to visit Japan for a summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Osaka.
Japan and Russia remain far apart over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
Japan has maintained that the four islands, which also include Etorofu and Kunashiri, have been illegally occupied by Russia, which seized them following Tokyo’s 1945 surrender in World War II.
Moscow has urged Tokyo to recognize the outcome of the war, including Russian sovereignty over the islands.
Ahead of the Kono-Lavrov meeting, Japanese government officials trod carefully so as not to negatively influence ongoing negotiations.
Russia, for its part, has accused Japan of distorting the essence of the Singapore agreement and misleading the public in both countries.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov summoned Japanese Ambassador Toyohisa Kozuki on Wednesday and protested recent remarks by Abe and other Japanese officials over the disputed islands.
Abe has said Russian residents of the islands need to understand that their territorial status will change and that their lives will improve by living alongside Japanese people.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman also raised questions about Japan’s approach to the negotiations as Tokyo was opposed to holding a joint news conference after the Kono-Lavrov meeting, Russia’s Tass news agency reported Sunday.
The spokeswoman reportedly called it “strange and contradictory” that Tokyo was “whipping up tensions” ahead of the talks, but it had no desire to disclose the outcome of the ministerial meeting to the press.