TOKYO (AP) — The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia agreed Saturday to strengthen economic and security cooperation but made no progress on resolving a long-standing territorial dispute over islands off northeastern Japan.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the two countries needed to address the territorial row in a calm manner. The dispute over the islands — called the southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan — has kept the two nations from forging a peace treaty officially ending their World War II hostilities, a problem Gemba said needs to be rectified.
Both men sought to downplay the dispute and focus on ways the two nations could expand their ties.
"As the security situation in the Asia-Pacific undergoes major changes, the Japan-Russia relationship has taken on new importance," Gemba said at a joint press conference that followed what he called a "fruitful" two-hour meeting.
"We reaffirmed that we want to strengthen our cooperation in security, defense and economic matters, particularly energy modernization," he added.
Lavrov welcomed the increased trade between the two nations, which last year grew to 2.45 trillion yen ($31 billion).
While the two sides didn't announce any specific energy projects, they did sign a procedure to simplify visa procedures in an effort to boost visitors and business interaction, particularly from Japan to Russia.
Ties between Japan and Russia soured in late 2010 when President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the disputed islands, which are located off the northeastern coast of Hokkaido. They were seized by Soviet troops in the closing days of the war, but Japan claims they are part of its territory.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to have oil, natural gas and mineral deposits.
"Resolving this problem and concluding a peace treaty is more necessary than ever," Gemba said. "But unfortunately ... our positions are different. We hope to resolve this through dialogue."
Lavrov said tackling the matter would have to wait until a new leader is chosen in Russia's presidential election on March 4, but added that he wants to seek a way "to resolve the dispute in a way that's acceptable to both sides."
Lavrov and Gemba were set to discuss North Korea over a working lunch in the second part of their meeting. Japan and Russia are among the six nations involved in long-stalled talks offering aid for North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Asked about North Korea during the press conference, Lavrov said Moscow has information that the talks will "possibly resume." He did not elaborate.
North Korea, which is undergoing a leadership transition, appears to be pushing for the resumption of the talks, but the U.S. and its allies want Pyongyang to first show it is serious about previous disarmament commitments. South Korea and China are the other countries involved in the talks.