The Japanese government removed a reference to applying maximum pressure on North Korea and stopped short of explicitly claiming ownership of a group of Russian-held islands in an annual foreign policy report released Tuesday.

The conciliatory approach is apparently part of Japan's efforts to prod the two countries toward working to resolve respective outstanding issues -- the past abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents and the territorial dispute with Russia.

In its Diplomatic Bluebook 2019, the Foreign Ministry said North Korea has not taken any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles despite repeated calls to do so from the international community.

But key phrases, which were used over North Korean issues in last year's report, were not repeated, such as that Japan is working closely with countries including the United States to "maximize pressure on North Korea by all available means" as its growing arsenal posed an "unprecedented, grave and imminent threat."


Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the language used in the report was chosen after taking into consideration "significant developments" on North Korean nuclear issues, such as the two summits held between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Tokyo has maintained its sanctions against North Korea. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has also been making conciliatory gestures, such as by not sponsoring a resolution condemning North Korea's human rights abuses at a U.N. panel, apparently to engage with North Korea to resolve the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals during the 1970s and 1980s.

While last year's Diplomatic Bluebook plainly stated that four Russia-controlled islands off eastern Hokkaido belong to Japan, the 2019 edition said Tokyo and Moscow are working toward resolving the territorial dispute under the "strong leadership" of Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the different wording, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said "it goes without saying" that the government's stance on the islands remains unchanged.

The dispute goes back to the Soviet Union's seizure of the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, following Japan's surrender in 1945 and has remained a major sticking point in the signing of a postwar peace treaty.

(Photo taken Jan. 30, 2019, from a Kyodo News airplane shows Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.)

Sources close to Abe have said he has been looking to secure the return of at least the two smaller islands but has given up on reaching a broad agreement with Putin in a summit taking place in June. A deal would be one of the Japanese premier's biggest political achievements since returning to power in 2012 through the end of his term in 2021.

On South Korea, the report said bilateral relations are in an "extremely difficult situation" as the countries remain at odds over issues including compensation for Korean laborers during Japan's 1910-1045 colonization of the peninsula.

South Korea's top court in October ordered a Japanese company to pay laborers for forced work, a decision the report bashed as going against a 1965 agreement that also established diplomatic ties between the countries.

Tensions flared again in December when a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane.

The report, meanwhile, said Japan's security alliance with the United States is "stronger than ever" amid frequent talks between Abe and Trump.

Ties with China, which had soured over Japanese-controlled, Beijing-claimed islets in the East China Sea and differing views on wartime history, have returned to a normal track and could further improve, the report said.