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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) speaks with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono during a meeting in Moscow, Russia November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin(reuters_tickers)
By Polina Nikolskaya and Polina Devitt
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is concerned that Japan is allowing Washington to use its territory as a base for a U.S. military build-up in north Asia under the pretext of countering North Korea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday.
His remarks came at a joint press conference with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, after talks between the two men in Moscow, and prompted Kono to defend Japan's stance towards North Korea and its ties with the United States.
Japan had wanted to focus on resolving a seven-decade old territorial dispute between the countries but Lavrov's comments on North Korea cast a shadow over the meeting.
"We are expressing deep concern, with facts to back it up, that Japan along with South Korea is becoming a territory for the deployment of elements of the U.S. global missile defence system which is being rolled out in that region under the pretext of the North Korea threat," Lavrov said.
"We have no problems directly with Japan, we do not see risks there. We see risks because of the proliferation of a global U.S. missile defence system on the territory of countries that neighbour Russia, including Japan."
He said that in the past few weeks the United States had conducted military exercises in the region and adopted additional sanctions despite the absence of provocation from Pyongyang.
"We are alarmed that in the last two months when North Korea conducted no tests or rocket launches, it seemed that Washington was not happy about that, and tried to do things that would irritate and provoke Pyongyang," Lavrov said.
Referring to U.S. officials, he said: "It's as if they are hoping that they (the North Koreans) will lash out again, and then it would be possible to engage in military options."
"As you know, the U.S. leadership has said many times that all options are on the table, including military options, and we note that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a meeting with President Trump in early November, said that he supports the American position 100 percent," Lavrov said.
PEACE HOPES FADE
Japanese Foreign Minister Kono, after listening to Lavrov's remarks, responded that Japan and its allies were not seeking regime change in North Korea. He said Tokyo had to act to defend itself after Pyongyang test-fired missiles which flew over Japan's territory.
"This is unprecedented, the most important and most pressing threat not just to Japan and Russia but to the international community as a whole. It's absolutely unacceptable," Kono said, speaking through an interpreter.
"We believe it's necessary to use all possible means and to increase the pressure on North Korea as much as possible to stop its nuclear programme and the rocket launches," he said.
"Japan welcomes the position of the United States, which is that to protect Japan and South Korea, all means of deterrence will be used."
Earlier this year, Japan's Abe expressed hope of a breakthrough in Tokyo's dispute with Moscow over a group of islands in the Pacific, but that prospect has now dimmed.
The islands are known in Japan as the northern territories and in Russia as the Kurile islands.
At the end of World War Two, Soviet forces took control over the islands from Japan. The island dispute has meant that Moscow and Tokyo have still not signed a formal peace agreement to end war-time hostilities.
Lavrov and Kono said at their talks that they had made progress on measures to boost Russian-Japanese economic cooperation on the islands, and to ease access for Japanese people wanting to visit.
They offered no details about any progress on resolving the core of the dispute, about who has sovereignty over the islands.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Toby Chopra)