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Abe, Putin slam N. Korea nuke test, differ on denuclearization path

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, are seen during their meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 7, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday condemned the latest nuclear test by North Korea as a "grave threat" to the region but remained at odds over the path toward its denuclearization.

    Meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok, Abe and Putin also agreed to conduct joint economic activities on disputed islands off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido in five areas -- aquaculture, greenhouse farming, tourism, wind power, and waste reduction.

    Tokyo sees the initiative as paving the way toward resolving the longstanding territorial dispute over the islands and signing of a post-World War II peace treaty, while Russia hopes to attract investments to the underdeveloped region.

    Abe and Putin met for the third time this year and 19th overall, at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea, which conducted its sixth nuclear test Sunday following recent missile launches in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    "We had deep exchanges over the imminent threat posed by North Korea. We agreed that the nuclear test is a threat to the Korean Peninsula and the region and is a challenge to a nonproliferation regime," Abe told a joint press conference. "We will cooperate closely."

    Putin, while condemning North Korea's missile and nuclear development as posing a threat to international and regional peace and safety, said "there are only political and diplomatic means to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula."

    "We need to continue dialogue," Putin said, in stark contrast to the position of Japan, which has said now is not the time for dialogue in curbing North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions.

    The nuclear test came only five days after the launch of a ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan on Aug. 29. The U.N. Security Council is currently debating imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea, with Japan and the United States pushing for an oil embargo on the reclusive state.

    Abe sought to get the support of Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council with close ties with North Korea, to apply "maximum" pressure on Pyongyang, but the Japanese official refrained from commenting on Putin's response.

    Regarding the joint economic activities on the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands to be held in the five areas, Abe and Putin agreed that a group of Japanese government officials and experts from the public and private sectors will conduct their second round of studies on the islands around October, the official said.

    As the two sides remain far apart in their stance on sovereignty over the islands, they would need to find a way to conduct the activities that does not compromise their respective positions or create legal problems.

    A working group would be set up to speed up talks on how to ensure that the envisioned projects would not hurt their respective legal stances, the official said. They need to clear issues such as which laws would be applied in implementing the projects.

    The islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group were seized by the Soviet Union after Japan's surrender in August 1945 ended World War II. They are called the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

    The territorial row has stopped the two countries from ever signing a postwar peace treaty.

    In a speech given earlier Thursday, Abe underscored the need to "put an end to the unnatural state" of the two neighbors lacking a peace treaty between them 72 years after World War II. "Vladimir, why don't the two of us fulfill that responsibility?" Abe proposed.

    The leaders also agreed to enable former Japanese residents to visit ancestral graves on the islands in late September by chartered aircraft, the official said. Flying there is meant to make the trip easier for the elderly former islanders.

    And as they seek to expand economic ties, the two sides also signed agreements for public-level cooperation in eight areas and for 48 private projects in such fields as health care for the elderly, urban development, energy and cutting-edge technologies.

    They also signed a bilateral tax treaty to eliminate double taxation and prevent tax evasion, with a view to promoting further mutual investments and economic exchanges, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

    Since last year, Japan has been strengthening economic ties with Russia, based on an eight-point package, in the hope of creating a favorable environment to resolve the territorial row and sign a postwar peace treaty.

    Abe attended the Eastern Economic Forum for a second straight year after proposing to Putin last year holding annual bilateral summits in Vladivostok.

    The leaders also agreed to hold talks again in November on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vietnam and next May in St. Petersburg on the fringes of another economic forum.

    Abe told Putin that when he visits St. Petersburg, he hopes to take part in the opening event of bilateral exchange programs set to be held that month in Moscow, according to the official.

    The leaders will also arrange Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono's visit to Russia in November and December, while Col. Gen. Oleg Salyukov, commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, are also scheduled to visit Japan in the same months, respectively, for security and defense talks, the official said.

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