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Abe to propose to speed up Northern Territories negotiations to Putin

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right, Mainichi) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to propose accelerating negotiations on the Russia-occupied Northern Territories to Russian President Vladimir Putin in their summit in Singapore next week, multiple individuals close to the government have told the Mainichi Shimbun.

In the summit, the prime minister wants to revisit the 1956 joint declaration between Tokyo and Moscow that stated two of the four islands -- Habomai and Shikotan -- would be returned to Japan following the signing of a peace treaty. Abe will then try to discuss in detail with Putin what to do with the remaining two islands -- Kunashiri and Etorofu, according to those people.

Based on the discussions in Singapore, the premier will aim at reaching a framework agreement on the issue with Putin in June 2019 when the Russian leader is scheduled to visit Japan. However, it is not clear how the Russian side will respond to the Japanese proposal in the Singapore meeting.

The Northern Territories, located off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, were occupied by Soviet Union forces shortly after the end of World War II in 1945. They have remained under Moscow's control even after the collapse of the Soviet Union that was succeeded by Russia.

The upcoming summit will be the first since the two leaders met in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East in September. At that time, Putin proposed to Abe during an economic meeting to sign a peace treaty "without preconditions" before the end of the year.

Abe turned down the offer as "unacceptable" after the meeting, based on the Japanese government's continuous position of first settling the issue of the four islands' attribution before concluding a peace treaty. Nevertheless, the premier also hit a positive note on the proposal, describing it as "an expression of enthusiasm toward the conclusion of a peace treaty."

Abe also said in September that the upcoming summit in November "will be important" during the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He intends to find a path to advance the territorial negotiations in the meeting, according to people knowledgeable about the premier's thinking.

Tokyo envisions moving the territorial issue forward through joint economic activities with Moscow on the Northern Territories. The two countries agreed on a road map describing a schedule of the joint projects in Vladivostok in September, and the Japanese side judged that the issue was going ahead to a certain extent.

The plan to propose speeding up the territorial negotiations to Putin in the summit later this month has emerged apparently because the prime minister decided to do so considering the end of his current third consecutive term as LDP president in 2021.

The 1956 Joint Declaration of Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which Abe intends to bring up at the Singapore meeting with Putin, is the only document over the territorial issue approved by the legislatures of the two countries. The declaration states that Moscow "agrees to hand over to Japan the Habomai islands and the island of Shikotan ... after the conclusion of a peace treaty" between Tokyo and Moscow.

The declaration was accepted as effective by Putin at one point, but the Russian leader has since been cautious about even having territorial negotiations with Japan. Confirming the validity of the joint document will offer an easier way to gain Putin's understanding, Abe administration officials surmise.

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuda, Political News Department)

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