Leaders of Russia and Japan hold hot spring meeting on WWII island row

Topping the agenda at the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe was the dispute over four islands seized by the former Soviet Union in the closing days of the Second World War,

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, is greeted by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, centre, and his wife, Akie, upon his arrival at a hot springs resort for a meeting in Nagato, Japan on December 15, 2016. Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP
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NAGATO // The leaders of Russia and Japan held talks at a hot springs resort in western Japan on Thursday on a territorial dispute that has divided their countries for 70 years.

Following their discussions, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe ordered a start to consultations on possible joint economic activity on four disputed islands, said Kremlin economic aide Yuri Ushakov.

A statement on the order would be published on Friday, he added.

The summit in Nagato city marked Mr Putin his first official visit to a G7 country since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, with talks scheduled to move to Tokyo on Friday.

Mr Abe invited Mr Putin to Japan in spite of the the fact that the G7 nations still have sanctions on Russia.

The Japanese prime minister said he and Mr Putin spent much of their three-hour meeting in Nagato discussing the dispute over four islands seized by the former Soviet Union in the closing days of the Second World War, and a peace treaty officially ending the two countries’ wartime hostilities.

The disagreement over the four southern Kuril islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, has kept the two countries from signing a peace agreement following World War II.

But Mr Abe hopes that possible economic cooperation on the islands will help solve the territorial dispute and bolster ties.

He did not say if there had been any progress on the territorial issue, but a major breakthrough is currently seen as unlikely.

Mr Putin, meanwhile, credited Mr Abe’s efforts for “a certain movement in the development of Russian-Japanese ties”.

James Brown, a Japan-Russia expert at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo, said the meeting was “an extraordinary development”.

“I think prime minister Abe is being really quite bold in announcing this new approach to relations with Russia, especially coming at such a difficult time in relations between Russia and the West,” he said.

* Associated Press, Reuters