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Japan, Russia to step up talks on economic activity on disputed isles

This combination photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Habomai islets in the Northern Territories. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan and Russia agreed Monday to start new working-level talks regarding joint economic activity on four islands at the center of a long-standing territorial dispute, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said.

The director-level task force will be launched separately from an existing working-level dialogue involving higher levels to step up coordination on the issue ahead of a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting is planned in Japan in June on the fringes of the Group of 20 summit.

The move comes as a major breakthrough on the territorial row appears unlikely during the summit, with Russia having shown no signs of budging on Japan's proposal for the two smallest of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido to be handed over.

Japan hopes the implementation of economic activities on the Russian-controlled islands will lead to an eventual settlement of the territorial row that has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a postwar peace treaty.

Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori told reporters Monday that he had "in-depth" discussions with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov on the establishment of a framework to allow people to travel to the islands without undermining their countries' positions.

Mori said the discussions included visa-free travel between Hokkaido and Sakhalin in the Russian Far East, which covers the disputed islands.

The islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan's surrender in 1945. Tokyo asserts the seizure was illegal while Moscow maintains it was a legitimate outcome of the war.

Morgulov on Monday also held talks with Kenji Kanasugi, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, in which they agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, according to Japanese officials.

Putin is slated to hold his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later this week, after talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim fell apart in February.

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