TOKYO -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov agreed to cooperate toward denuclearizing North Korea, though their meeting also highlighted rifts over the specifics of achieving that goal.
During their roughly four-hour talks here on Wednesday, Kono said the international community needed to determine how serious Pyongyang is about giving up its nuclear program. "To avoid repeating past mistakes, we want to continue exerting maximum pressure [on the regime] together," he told Lavrov.
Meanwhile, Lavrov touched on the importance of crafting a road map toward a nuclear-free North Korea, including conditions like a freeze on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development, the suspension of joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea, and a revival of the six-party talks with China on the North.
While the two diplomats agreed that their ultimate goal was to denuclearize North Korea, they were divided on how to get there. For example, Tokyo supports the U.S.-South Korean drills, and it is more interested in a trilateral partnership with Washington and Seoul than the six-party talks when it comes to resuming a dialogue with Pyongyang.
The ministers also discussed the territorial dispute over a chain of islands called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. The Japanese government hopes to make headway on the issue, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's landslide re-election on Sunday gives him a renewed grip on power.
Kono and Lavrov agreed to accelerate preparations to launch joint economic activities on the islands ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Russia in May. The countries hope to iron out the details of those activities at a summit then.
At a joint news conference after the meeting, Lavrov criticized Japan's plans to deploy the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore missile defense system -- ostensibly a response to North Korea's growing threat. U.S. missile defenses in the region will directly impact Russia's national security, he said. But Kono called for Russian understanding, stressing that the system "will not be a threat to our neighbors, including Russia."
Russia worries that if it hands the Northern Territories over to Japan, Tokyo would allow the U.S. to build a military base there. It wants to prevent Japan and America from building up their armed presence near its borders, even if they claim they only want to shield themselves from North Korea.
Regarding the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K., Kono told Lavrov during their talks that "the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated," and stressed the importance of uncovering all the facts. But he did not explicitly criticize Russia.
Russia has asked the U.K. to investigate what actually happened, but there have been no results so far, Lavrov said at their news conference.