Japan PM to visit Russia in new push for improved ties

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will next week make the first official visit to Moscow by a Japanese premier in a decade, hoping to give a new impulse to relations with Russia held back by a festering territorial dispute, officials said Monday.

Abe, who took office in December and made improving ties with Russia a priority, will meet President Vladimir Putin during his April 28-30 visit, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The Kremlin said the two sides during Abe's visit would discuss "the perspectives of the further development of the whole range of bilateral cooperation".

Foreign policy issues will also be discussed, including the situation on the Korean peninsula after North Korea's bellicose behaviour in recent weeks troubled both Moscow and Tokyo.

The Japanese government in Tokyo confirmed Abe's visit and said afterwards he would head to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for talks with leaders of those three countries.

Neighbours in the Pacific region, Japan and Russia have long expressed a desire to expand relations in particular in business, but ties have been limited by the dispute over the Pacific Kuril islands.

The two nations have never formally signed a World War II peace treaty, with Japan maintaining its claim over the southernmost four of the islands, all of which are controlled by Moscow.

However Abe has shown signs of a more conciliatory line on the issue than his predecessor, saying in February that he wants to find a "mutually acceptable solution" to the territorial row.

After Abe took office in December, he and Putin agreed to restart talks on signing a peace treaty whose absence has so far prevented the two states from demarcating a border.

Abe said in an interview with the state ITAR-TASS news agency published Tuesday that he wanted to build good personal relations with Putin and give a new impulse to relations during his visit.

"I hope to agree on a new start to the negotiations on a peace treaty which have not moved forward, give a new push to relations and make sure that this visit opens new long term possibilities for their development."

Abe said that he would be accompanied by the biggest ever business delegation to join a Japanese prime minister on a visit to Russia, comprising 120 people.

A diplomatic source in Moscow described Abe's visit as "very important" and said there were great expectations of "fruitful results" from the talks.

The last such visit was by then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi who travelled to Moscow to meet Putin in January 2003.

The visit is also taking place after an intriguing trip to Moscow in February by Abe's close ally, the former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who delivered a message from the new premier to Putin.

Yet there remains little hope of an immediate breakthrough, with Tokyo insisting the four islands currently inhabited by around 16,500 Russians are its territory and Moscow showing no hint of a compromise.

One solution mooted in the past could involve Russia ceding control of the two smallest islands of Shikotan and Khabomai and keeping the much larger Kunashir and Iturup (known as Kunashiri and Etorofu in Japanese). But even this would require massive concessions from both sides.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev infuriated Tokyo twice, in July 2012 and November 2010, visiting Kunashir which juts out past the northeastern tip of Japan's Hokkaido island.

Medvedev's first visit to Kunashir in November 2010 -- when he still held the post of president -- was condemned by Tokyo as an "unforgiveable outrage".

The four islands claimed by Tokyo are known as the Northern Territories in Japan. The islands have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops at Stalin's behest in 1945 at the end of World War II.