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The convoluted case of the coveted Kurils
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - These are ruggedly beautiful islands, cold to be sure and lashed at times by ferocious weather, but they are also rich in marine and mineral resources and their sovereignty is bitterly contested by Japan and Russia, and not for their scenery.

As expected, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin could not hammer out a solution to the thorny issue of the Russian-held Northern Territories, known in Russia as the Southern Kurils. Japan has flatly rejected Russia's offer to return two of the four islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and insists that all four must be returned, but it is prepared to be flexible on the timing if Russia recognizes Japanese sovereignty. 

The Northern Territories consist of three islands - Kunashiri, Etorofu, and Shikotan - and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets.
The four major islands are believed to be rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the area is a major fishing grounds.

Japan hopes that when Putin visits next year - unless he cancels for political reasons - serious progress can be made in resolving the issue and returning the territory to Japan.

Their brief 45-minute encounter last Sunday, shortly after the two-day annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in Santiago, Chile, didn't leave much time for substance, and the two leaders avoided delving into the decades-long territorial dispute in advance of the expected visit by Putin to Tokyo next year, probably in the spring. From now on, as the two sides get deeper into this territorial issue, as they inevitably will, the peoples of the two nations will realize once again the complexity of the situation.

Given the tough stances taken by the two sides, combined with and even fueled by both countries' strong domestic public sentiment and nationalist emotions over this issue, one politically feasible way for both governments to resolve this issue is to involve a third party, especially the United States, which enjoys good relations with both, in the negotiations.

On the sidelines of the APEC forum, however, Koizumi and Putin reaffirmed the need for Tokyo and Moscow to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude a bilateral peace treaty. But they did not address the specifics of the dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan. The two sides agreed to address the issue when Putin visits Tokyo; Putin told Koizumi that he would visit Japan early next year, but Russia has yet to formally propose a date. Meanwhile, Koizumi expressed hopes that Putin would visit Japan in late March, when the 2005 World Exposition will be held in Aichi prefecture, according to the Kyodo News Service.

Japanese political observers have suggested that Putin may be withholding official confirmation and a date for the visit, using the trip as a diplomatic card to strengthen bilateral negotiations over the long-running territorial dispute with Japan. Some of them even said Putin might suggest canceling his trip to Japan in the near future, if Tokyo continues to reject Putin's recent proposal that the dispute over the Northern Territories be settled with the return of two of the four contested islands, based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, which calls for the return of two of the four islands to Japan.

Last Monday Putin offered Koizumi hard choices for ending this territorial dispute by suggesting the return of the smaller Shikotan island, and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets. Political analysts here and elsewhere suggested that Putin had sent up a political trail balloon domestically and diplomatically in order to test domestic opinions and Japan's response to this issue.

But to Tokyo, Putin's statement was nothing new. The following day, Koizumi swiftly rejected Putin's proposal, saying, "The return of two islands is taken for granted, but that alone will not be satisfactory to Japan." Tokyo has adhered to its position of resolving the territorial row under the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which names the four islands and says a peace treaty should be signed after the dispute over their sovereignty is resolved. Japan has consistently been requesting that Russia return all four islands in the post-war period, but it has also shown flexibility over the timing of the return - if Japan's sovereignty over those four islands is confirmed.

The troubled boundary tangled with history
Unlike other political issues, the issue of the Northern Territories has been unique in commanding political and public solidarity for the return of all four islands. Every major Japanese political party, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, has urged Russia to return the four islands. This is because the majority of the Japanese believe Russia occupied the territories without justification after World War II.

To understand the complexity of the issue, one needs to know the modern history of the problem. The official Japanese version of the history goes like this:

World War II was fought between September 1939 and August 1945; Japan and the Soviet Union were not at war throughout almost the entire period of the war because they concluded a neutrality pact in April 1941, and it was valid for five years. But, on August 9,1945, three days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Soviet Union, violating this neutrality pact, suddenly entered the war against Japan, which was already on the brink of defeat. About a week later, on August 15, Japan accepted the Potsdam Proclamation and surrendered to the Allied Powers.

Despite Japan's absolute surrender and its acceptance of the Potsdam Proclamation, the Soviet Union persisted in its quest for land and relentlessly invaded Sakhalin, previously Japanese territory, as well as the Kuril islands. It was on September 5, 1945, that the Soviet Union managed to finally occupy the Northern Territories. Around that time, about 17,000 Japanese are said to have been living on those four islands, overwhelmingly noncombatants. Not a few of them who failed to escape from those islands are believed to have been sent to Siberia and Central Asia as forced laborers, in effect receiving a death sentence.

In all fairness, the Soviet Union lived up to the obligations implicit in the secret Yalta Agreement of February 1945, signed by Soviet leader Joseph V Stalin, US president Franklin D Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston S Churchill, six months before Japan's surrender on August 1945. At the Yalta Conference, the US and the United Kingdom are said to have allowed the Soviet Union to unjustly invade and occupy these Japanese lands in the post- World War II period - a reward for Soviet participation in the war. Based on this secret agreement, the USSR even claimed to retain the northern part of Hokkaido, although the US rejected that idea bluntly.

On Shikotan, the people live primarily by fishing. Habomai is unoccupied. Those are the two islands Russia says it could relinquish.

Japan and the Allied Powers, including the US and the UK, signed the peace treaty in San Francisco in 1951, when the Soviet Union participated but did not sign the treaty. At the conference, Japan renounced the "Kuril Islands", excluding Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, or Habomai islands, which Japan claimed had always been Japanese territories and wished to claim them after the war. Also, the Soviet inclusion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands, and the Northern Territories into their territory could not be recognized by the international community (in San Francisco, for the treaty signing). For these reasons, the Soviet Union did not sign the treaty.

Most of Russia's politicians appear to have believed it was no problem to continue to occupy those islands because the US, Japan's big brother, had acknowledged the Soviet occupation at the Yalta Conference. But the United States has actually supported Japan's claim to the four islands for years in the post-war period.

Thus, historically speaking, this issue is not a bilateral one at all, but a trilateral one involving the US, at least for Japan. From a historical perspective, the US has a responsibility to press on this issue as a mediator or intermediary. The involvement of the US would be helpful to ease the growing hostile feelings of the Japanese and Russian publics over this issue.

The US has a good opportunity and should seize the moment. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the peace treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed in the summer of 1905, at the conclusion of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. At that time, US president Theodore Roosevelt offered mediation, summoned representatives of the warring parties to Portsmouth and helped greatly in dealing with the aftermath of that war. Today, the US could be the mediator for Russia and Japan, which have both more solid ties with the US than ever before on the governmental and political levels. Furthermore, for those three countries, this trilateral negotiation process toward better relations between Japan and Russia would also bring a desirable benefit in common to Northeast Asia: to check and balance China's emergence as a regional political and military power, especially since US influence is believed to be rapidly declining in Northeast Asia, especially in South Korea.

In addition, next year presents a rare opportunity that may never come again. It also marks the 150th anniversary of the treaty of commerce and friendship between Japan and Russia. Resolution and closure of the problem next year could significantly improve the two countries' ties.

According to recent data released by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), a Japanese government-supported organization, Japan's exports to and imports from Russia, both hit record highs during last year. Exports to Russia climbed 87% to US$17.6 billion. Imports from the country were also up 29% to $42.2 billion. In addition, Japan's exports in the first six months also increased 101% from the same period last year and Japan's imports from Russia increased 26%.

In 1990s, Japan pursued a practical and realistic approach to resolve this territorial dispute. It aimed to barter those Russian-held islands for Japan's huge economic assistance, in a bid to persuade the Russian government and local governments in both Sakhalin and the Southern Kuril islands, which have needs often exceeding the Russian central government's financial means (such as payment suspension of old-age pension), to release control of the islands.

Since the spring of 1991, Japan has committed 89 billon yen (about $860 million) to those islands in total as of March 2004, according to the Russia Assistance Division of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has spent all that money on projects, such as the introduction of diesel generators and the establishment of medical clinic offices, in the hope that the Russians will finally give up those islands. For this reason, the Japanese cannot easily abandon their hope for the return of the four islands. It has cost a lot so far to strive to retain the islands.

To accelerate this growing economic trend as well, both countries need to remove this thorny island issue from their domestic and international political agendas

Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at

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Nov 25, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

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