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International relations

Strawberries and uni: Japan eyes ventures with Russia on islands

Territory's status still unresolved but Abe and Putin will affirm economic cooperation

Four disputed islands have prevented Japan and Russia from formally ending World War II. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

TOKYO -- Japan will dispatch a private-sector research team to a disputed island chain held by Russia to explore joint ventures between the two countries such as greenhouse strawberry and sea urchin cultivation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to approve the plan when they meet Saturday in Moscow for talks and events promoting cultural exchange. Abe left Tokyo Thursday for Russia and will speak at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg Friday.

Tokyo and Moscow agreed in December 2016 to begin discussing joint economic activities on the islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the Southern Kurils. Last September, they set as their priorities five joint ventures, including aquaculture, tourism and wind power generation. Japan sent two private-public teams to conduct feasibility studies in June-July and October.

The latest research team will be dispatched as soon as this summer and will be private-sector led this time. It will study the feasibility of greenhouse cultivation for strawberries and sea urchin cultivation, narrowing down operational details and potential sites after surveying the islands and surrounding waters.

But negotiations are stalled on a "special system" that would allow for joint economic activity while preserving both countries' legal positions on the islands. Russia, which administers the islands, has pushed for the use of its own laws, a condition Japan does not accept.

"The upcoming round of talks will not touch on the special system," said an official from Japan's Foreign Ministry.

Abe also said he wants to make "definitive progress" on joint economic activities and visits by Japanese former residents of the islands to visit family graves.

The territorial dispute has also prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty to end World War II. "I need to have a heart-to-heart with President Putin on reaching a peace treaty," said Abe before takeoff.

On North Korea, Abe said he "wants to confirm that they will work together closely to comprehensively solve the abduction, nuclear and missile issues."

It will be the first meeting between Abe and Putin, who was re-elected in March, since last November in Danang, Vietnam.

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