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Japan seeks “historic” year in treaty talks amid deep rift with Russia

Japan wants to make 2019 a “historic year” in advancing peace treaty talks with Russia, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Monday, despite a sharp divide over a decades-long territorial dispute.


Kono and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to smooth the way for a summit of their leaders on Jan. 22 in Russia as their leaders have agreed to step up talks based on a 1956 joint declaration that mentions the transfer of two disputed islands off Hokkaido.


“With an eye to making the year 2019 a fruitful and historic one, my hope is to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov to proceed with our work,” Kono told him during their meeting in Moscow as he expressed hope to have an “intensive” discussion.


Nonetheless, Japan and Russia remain far apart over the disputed islands.


Lavrov told reporters after the meeting that it would be difficult to make progress in the peace treaty talks without Japan’s acceptance of the outcome of World War II, including Russia’s sovereignty over the islands, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia.


Lavrov also said it is “unacceptable” for Japan to call the islands the Northern Territories under its law.


Kono, who met with the Japanese press separately, said he “clearly conveyed the Japanese side’s position,” without going into much detail.


Kono and Lavrov have been tasked with overseeing the peace treaty negotiations. The latest meeting was the first since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin entrusted the minsters with the new mission in December.


Both governments will make arrangements for another foreign ministers’ meeting in February on the sidelines of an international gathering in Germany, according to Kono.


During a Singapore summit in November, Abe and Putin agreed to step up talks on the basis of the 1956 agreement that mentions the transfer of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group to Japan by the Soviet Union following the conclusion of a peace treaty.


The November agreement has led to the view that Japan will focus on the transfer of the two Russian-held islands first, despite its conventional 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.


Abe, who has held 24 summit talks with Putin, is believed to be seeking a broad agreement in June when Putin is expected to visit Japan for a summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Osaka.


The territorial row has long prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty.


Japan has maintained that the four islands, also including Etorofu and Kunashiri, have been illegally occupied by Russia, which seized them following Tokyo’s 1945 surrender in World War II.


Lavrov indicated Monday that Russia would not budge over the sovereignty over the islands, but he expressed hope to continue bilateral dialogue based on the “political will” of the Russian and Japanese leaders.


Lavrov, who expressed his desire to elevate bilateral relations to a “higher level,” proposed to make travel visa-free between the two countries, first starting between Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East and Japan’s Hokkaido.


Ahead of the Kono-Lavrov meeting, Japanese government officials trod carefully so as not to negatively influence ongoing negotiations.


But Russia has accused Japan of escalating tensions and misleading the public in both countries.


Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov summoned Japanese Ambassador Toyohisa Kozuki on Wednesday and protested at recent remarks by Abe and other Japanese government 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 press conference after the Kono-Lavrov meeting, Russia’s Tass news agency reported Sunday.


Maria Zakharova 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.

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