Japan's prime minister heads to Russia for talks with Putin

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his wife Akie wave as they depart for Russia at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Thursday, May 24, 2018. Abe headed to Russia on Thursday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, in hopes of making progress on joint economic projects on disputed islands as a step toward resolving the decades-old territorial row. (Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed to Russia on Thursday for talks with President Vladimir Putin in hopes of making progress on joint economic projects on disputed islands as a step toward resolving a decades-old territorial row.

Abe said he hoped to talk "heart-to-heart" with Putin on Saturday to achieve progress on the island issue and eventually sign a peace treaty. Abe also plans to reaffirm Russia's cooperation in efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.

Abe has been pushing for a way forward in the territorial dispute that centers on four southern Kuril islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories.

The Soviet Union took the islands in the closing days of World War II, expelling 17,000 Japanese to nearby Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands.

The row has kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their World War II hostilities.

Japan is seeking to implement joint business projects on the Kuril Islands as a way to gain momentum to resolve the territorial row. Russia wants to bring in more investment to its wider Far East.

The two sides agreed on joint projects in areas such as farming, health care and energy at the end of 2016 but progress has been slow. No quick breakthrough is expected on the island sovereignty issue.

Abe is also bringing a gift — a Japanese "Akita" puppy — for Pyeongchang Olympic figure skating champion Alina Zagitova.

The three-day trip will allow Abe a short break from grilling by opposition lawmakers over a widening scandal involving his wife's role in a questionable school land deal. Hundreds of pages of documents were released Wednesday, including sections indicating alleged efforts by Akie Abe to seek preferential treatment for an acquaintance's purchase of state land for a private school.

Abe said in February last year that he would step down if there was evidence he or his wife were involved, and has denied any wrongdoing by either of them.

The scandal and another alleged cronyism case linked to Abe have stung him since last year and hurt his support ratings.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Find her work at https://www.apnews.com/search/mari%20yamaguchi

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