Moscow and Tokyo Start Consultations on Isles

Japan and Russia agreed Saturday to begin working on specific projects involving joint economic activity on Russian-held isles claimed by Japan, in the hope such efforts will lead to signing a postwar peace treaty. In the first senior officials' meeting on the issue, the two sides proposed concrete projects in areas such as healthcare and fisheries. But they still need to work out a legal arrangement so as not to undermine their rival claims to sovereignty over the islands.

Yet even if joint economic activities begin, that would not guarantee talks on settling the territorial dispute will move forward, as Russia staunchly maintains the isles off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido are its legitimate territory, and appears more interested in economic gains, Japanese analysts said.

At the outset of talks and the portion open to the media, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said any joint economic activities need to proceed in a way that "does not contradict Russian laws." He also said the proposals made by Russia are designed to contribute to the "social and economic development" of the islands.

A Japanese official said Russia had proposed a project to rebuild decaying houses on the islands. Japanese officials declined to comment on the projects they presented. But earlier government sources had said Japan would propose that Japan and Russia jointly offer advanced medical services on the disputed islands, and ferry tours of the islands for tourists.

Afterward, Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba said the diplomats discussed streamlining procedures for visa-free trips to the isles by Japanese who once lived there, for the purpose of visiting their ancestors' graves, and agreed to consider such trips by air. Travel by air would help the former islanders, whose average age now tops 80, visit more frequently and quickly. Currently former residents are only allowed to travel to the islands in the summer by chartered ship, and voyages are sometimes cancelled due to high waves. After the talks, Akiba told reporters: "From now on, we will discuss the proposed projects in detail, including the necessary legal basis," adding the next round of talks will be in Moscow. The two sides agreed they need outside experts to push ahead with discussions on the implementation of the projects. "We had many points of agreement among the proposals but (we are not yet at) a stage where we have reached a decision," Akiba said.

The talks were held ahead of a meeting next Monday between the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers. Fumio Kishida and Sergey Lavrov are to meet on the sidelines of a bilateral security talks between the countries' foreign and defense ministers the same day. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also plans a visit to Russia in late April for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kishida expressed hope for "concrete outcomes" regarding the joint economic activities. "I hope that (the results) lead to Prime Minister Abe's planned visit to Russia."

At a summit meeting in December, Abe and Putin agreed to launch talks on joint economic activities on the disputed islands, and on former island residents' visiting there. But the leaders remained apart over the issue of sovereignty. The leaders said at the time that building mutual trust through joint economic activities could be "an important step" in resolving the territorial row and signing a post-war peace treaty.

The row over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

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