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Japan, Soviets Turn Back Clock on Islands Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Japan and the Soviet Union have turned back the clock 15 years in search of a frame of reference to rekindle diplomatic and economic relations that have been stalled over a protracted territorial dispute.

In a cautious joint communique timed to the departure today of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who held two days of talks with his Japanese counterpart, Sosuke Uno, the two sides failed to directly address the thorny issue of Japan’s claim to a small group of islands occupied by the Soviets since 1945.

But they agreed to refer to the problem by mimicking the vague language of a joint statement made in 1973, when then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka met with Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev in Moscow, and they also agreed to pursue working-level talks on a peace treaty that could deal with the territorial question among other pending bilateral issues.

Removal of Difficulties

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“Each side set forth its understanding of the historical and political aspects related to the removal of difficulties still existing in bilateral relations,” Shevardnadze said in a news conference this morning.

“I think this is the most appropriate formulation in order to begin serious discussions on the peace treaty,” said Shevardnadze, who arrived in Tokyo on Sunday and is scheduled to visit the Philippines and North Korea before returning to Moscow.

Although they normalized diplomatic relations in 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union have not yet concluded a World War II peace treaty. Soviet troops seized four islands in the Kurile chain off the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido at the end of the war. Japan has demanded their return and has rejected Soviet overtures for expanded economic ties while the dispute remains unresolved.

Only Tangible Result

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The only tangible result in the Shevardnadze-Uno talks, the first held between foreign ministers of the two countries since May, 1986, was an agreement to continue working consultations on the peace treaty at the deputy foreign minister level. The Brezhnev-Tanaka accord in 1973 mandated discussions on the peace treaty at the ministerial level, but these have produced no results to date.

Shevardnadze and Uno engaged in “heated” discussions on the territorial issue Tuesday but made “no progress in substance,” Seiichi Kondo, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said.

The first session of working-level talks on the peace treaty also had negative results, Kondo said.

“Neither side showed any concessions,” he said. “Their positions are still far apart.”

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The Soviet side raised the matter of increased economic cooperation in related working-level talks Tuesday, proposing an investment protection agreement that appeared aimed at drawing Japanese capital and technology into Siberian development projects. But the Japanese deflected the proposal, arguing that “the overall situation of bilateral relations is not necessarily suitable for further promotion of investment,” Kondo said.

Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita drove home Japan’s position on the Northern Territories when he met with Shevardnadze on Tuesday morning, saying that the territorial problem “is unavoidable for Japanese-Soviet relations” and adding, “Once solved, clear new prospects for better cooperation will be opened.”

Shevardnadze delivered to Takeshita a letter from President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the contents of which were not disclosed, and said the Soviet leader has put a potential visit to Japan on his political calendar for next year. Uno is expected to visit Moscow next spring. Top leaders of the two countries have not met since Tanaka’s 1973 Moscow trip.


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