(Releads, adds Japanese foreign minister’s spokesman, details)
By James Kilner and Conor Sweeney
MOSCOW, April 14 (Reuters) - Japan pressed Russia on Monday to end a territorial dispute over a chain of Pacific islands which has prevented the two countries from formally ending World War Two hostilities and strengthening ties.
The dispute over the islands, known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, has overshadowed Russian-Japanese relations for more than 60 years.
Japan says a resolution of the dispute would attract a new wave of Japanese investors to Russia.
Russia is keen for funds to develop its Far Eastern regions while Japan is eager to tap Russia’s booming oil industry to reduce its reliance on the Middle East for its energy needs.
Kazuo Kodama, spokesman for Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, said after talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow that “both Japan and Russia agreed to conduct even more serious consultations and negotiations”.
“In the end, our two foreign ministers agreed that with respect to peace treaty negotiations, first and foremost the territorial issue must be resolved,” he told a news briefing.
Quoting directly what Komura told Lavrov, Kodama said: “We adopted a Japanese-Russian action plan in January 2003. ... In October, when I met Your Excellency, I emphasised that the continued discussion is not enough. We’ve got to make tangible progress.”
“In the end, the two ministers agreed to continue even more seriously this discussion,” Kodama said.
Earlier on Monday Lavrov said after meeting Komura finding a solution to the territorial dispute “assumes intensive, patient work, work which will take into account, in full, the complexity of this problem and the mood in Russian and Japanese societies.”
“It will take time, but the resolve to find a solution exists on both sides,” Lavrov told a news conference.
“We agreed to further continue a serious dialogue, serious negotiations with the aim of finding a final and mutually acceptable solution to this problem.”
Diplomatic sources in Tokyo said Komura was in Moscow to prepare the ground for a possible meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin, who steps down next month, and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
The islands in dispute are in the Kuril chain between Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. The closest is just 15 km (9 miles) from Hokkaido, which will host this year’s Group of Eight summit.
The islands were seized by the Soviet Union after it declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, just a week before Japan surrendered, sending about 17,000 Japanese fleeing. Neither side accepts the other’s sovereignty over the islands.
Trade between Russia and Japan was worth $21.2 billion in 2007, a five-fold increase since 2002. Major investors include carmaker Toyota, which last year opened its first Russian plant.
But signalling a new difference with Moscow, Komura defended Japan’s cooperation with the United States on a planned missile defence shield. Moscow opposes the plan — and a similar system in eastern Europe — saying it is a threat to Russian security.
“This is something Japan has been forced to do, taking into account the situation of Japan and the fact North Korea has conducted nuclear testing. I want to underline that this is in no way directed against Russia,” said Komura.
Lavrov disagreed: “The best way to track and if necessary neutralise possible threats is the creation of a collective system ... which would unite the United States, Europe, Russia and any other interested countries including, of course, Japan.” (Reporting by James Kilner and Conor Sweeney; Writing by Conor Sweeney and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mary Gabriel)