TOKYO – 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 that has kept the two nations from concluding a peace treaty.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the two countries need to address the row over islands off northeastern Japan in a calm manner. Gemba said resolving the dispute and forging a peace treaty officially ending their hostilities in World War II is "more necessary than ever."
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 news conference following 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 grew last year to 2.45 trillion yen ($31 billion).
"We want our international cooperation to expand," Lavrov said.
The two sides signed an agreement to simplify visa procedures to boost visitors and business interaction, particularly from Japan to Russia.
Ties between Japan and Russia soured in late 2010 when Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the disputed islands, called the southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. They were seized by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II, but Japan says 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.
"Both countries need to address the row over the islands in a calm manner without getting emotional or critical," he said.
Lavrov and Gemba were to discuss North Korea over a working lunch in the second part of their meeting. Japan and Russia are among six nations involved in long-stalled talks offering aid for North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Asked about North Korea, 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 a resumption of the talks, but the U.S. and its allies want it to first show it is serious about previous disarmament commitments. South Korea and China are the other countries involved in the talks.
Lavrov also said Russia would support Japan's efforts to press North Korea on its abduction of Japanese citizens.
After years of denials, North Korea said in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese to train its spies. It returned five abductees but claimed the rest had died. Japan disputes that and says as many as 12 Japanese may still be captive in the North.