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Japan's Koizumi urges Putin to help end Kurils dispute
January 10, 2003

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to help find a solution to a decades-long territorial dispute at a key summit that risked being hijacked by the crisis over North Korea.

"It is necessary to solve the territorial issue and sign a peace treaty as soon as possible," Koizumi said at the beginning of talks with Putin at the Kremlin, referring to the two countries' failure to conclude a treaty formally ending their World War II hostilities.

The two countries are at loggerheads over four southern Kuril islands seized by Soviet troops in 1945 in the closing stages of the war and claimed by Japan.

All previous attempts to settle the dispute have foundered, and a settlement is seen as a precondition for a peace treaty that would enable Russia-Japanese relations to develop fully.

Discussion of the territorial dispute was initially at the top of the agenda for the talks between Putin and Koizumi after Russian and Japanese experts prepared an "action plan," developed over several weeks, intended to map the way ahead for Russo-Japanese relations in the coming years.

However the build-up to the summit was eclipsed by North Korea's announcement that it was pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Shortly before meeting Putin, Koizumi said that his government would call on Pyongyang to reverse its decision to pull out of the NPT, while Russia expressed "concern and alarm" at the development, which it said would aggravate tensions in the Korean peninsula.

The crisis has offered an opportunity for the two uneasy neighbors to draw closer.

Putin said after the extended one-on-one talks with Koizumi -- lasting about an hour longer than scheduled -- that their talks were "very meaningful" and covered "the prospects for signing a peace treaty, economic ties and international issues."

He expressed regret that the current talks were the first full-scale negotiations in two years.

Russian officials described the "action plan," on which the two leaders were due to sign a joint declaration, as "a historic document in Russo-Japanese relations."

Moscow is keenly interested in clearing the way for greater Japanese investment in the Russian economy, particularly in developing oil and gas and other natural resources in the Far Eastern region.

In addition to intensifying efforts to conclude a peace treaty, the Russia-Japan "action plan" reportedly covers a wide range of subjects including political dialogue and cooperation in international affairs.

It also enshrines a strategic oil pipeline venture in which Japan will pledge backing for a five billion dollar 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) crude oil pipeline between eastern Siberia and Russia's east coast.

The pipeline running between Angarsk, west of Lake Baikal, via Khabarovsk to Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan, would provide the first major outlet for Russian energy production to the east Asian market and eventually to the US west coast.

The project, yet to be finalised, would reduce Japan's reliance on Middle East oil producers, and possibly also that of the United States and other Asian countries.

Koizumi is scheduled to stop over in the Far East city of Khabarovsk on his way back from the Russian capital before returning to Tokyo on January 12.

Prior to meeting Putin he placed wreaths at the theatre on Dubrovka Street in southern Moscow which was seized by a rebel Chechen commando last October and where more than 100 hostages died, and at the tomb of Russia's unknown soldier by the Kremlin walls.

The bilateral contacts are due to continue from next Monday, when Japanese Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba arrives in Moscow for a three-day visit.

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