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Northern Territories / Kuril Islands

Northern Territories For Russia, they are the justly earned spoils of war. For Japan, the Kurile Islands are stolen territory, lost to Soviet aggression and Western interference. More than 70 years after the last shot was fired in World War II, the two countries remain locked in a stalemate over four wave-battered islands.

Japan claims the four islands closest to the Japanese mainland are not part of the Kurile chain and the U.S.S.R. therefore had no right to capture them. A 2016 poll showed 78 percent of Russian mainlanders were opposed to returning the disputed islands to Japan. Another factor wedding Russia to the islands is current military strategy. Deepwater channels between the Kuriles allow Russian submarines a stealthy corridor to the Pacific Ocean. With the prospect of the United States establishing a military outpost on the Kuriles if returned to Japan, Russia is unlikely ever to agree to a handover of all the disputed islands. But one possibility could end the dispute in what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called a "hikiwake" (the term for "draw" in judo).

The most palatable solution for both sides might be what has been dubbed "two islands plus alpha," in which Japan would receive the Shikotan and Habomai islands (and their fishing grounds), plus one more yet-to-be-defined concession from Russia. In return, Japan would renounce claims to the two larger, militarized islands, Kunashir and Etorofu. The "alpha" might include fishing rights for Japan near the two larger islands or the rights for Japanese citizens to visit and do business on the disputed islands. If Russia and Japan can find an "alpha" that is acceptable to both sides, a peace treaty can be signed and World War II might finally, formally end for these two countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in November that Japan and Russia will speed up negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 joint declaration. Russia has demanded Tokyo secure a guarantee from the US that Washington won't deploy any troops on the islands. Russia controls the 4 islands. Japan claims them. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan's territory. It says the islands were illegally occupied after World War Two.

Russia said 13 December 2018 the former Soviet Union's memo in 1960, which called for the withdrawal of US forces in Japan, needs to be taken into account during the expected peace treaty talks with Japan. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the negotiations will cover a whole range of issues, including security. She also said all diplomatic documents, including the Soviet memorandum in 1960, have to be considered.

The Soviet government issued the memo in protest of the revision of the Japan-US security treaty in that year. The memorandum unilaterally called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Japan, setting a new condition for the handover of 2 of the 4 islands known as the Northern Territories. Japan rejected the demand. The issue became one of the elements leaving peace treaty negotiations stalled.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed the prospects of the joint economic activities on South Kuril Islands, among other issues, 15 December 2016. The Russian-Japanese relations are tainted by the territorial dispute between the two countries. Japan lays claims to the islands of Kunashir, Shikotan, Habomai and Iturup, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils and Japan the Northern Territories. The territorial dispute has led to the situation that Moscow and Tokyo have never signed a permanent peace treaty after World War II.

The announcement of a special economic regime on the Southern Kurils and the establishment of a joint investment fund were the two main achievements of the Russia-Japan summit that was held on Dec. 15-16. Putin was welcomed in a G7 capital for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. A total of 68 agreements worth 300 billion yen (about $2.54 billion) were signed one the sidelines of the summit. The agreements included the establishment of joint investment platforms, Mitsuis acquisition of a 10 percent stake in Russias R-Pharm, and a 200-million euro loan from Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) to the Yamal LNG project.

When meeting with residents of South Kuril Islands Japan claims as its own, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia already during the lifetime of this generation. Putin described the lack of a peace treaty with Japan as an anachronism that must be consigned to history. He added that even though Russia does not think that it has any territorial problems with Japan, he is still ready to discuss this.

According to a recent poll by Iomiuri newspaper, 51 percent of respondents who lived on Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai islands before the end of WWII, said that Tokyo should reconsider its demand for the immediate return of what it calls Northern territories. A total of 82.3 percent preferred a step-by-step approach with Habomai and Shikotan to be handed over now and the future of Iturup and Shikotan to be decided at the negotiating table. Russia's defense minister said 22 October 2015 that Moscow plans to build a military base on the Kuril Islands, along with four Arctic bases that should be completed by 2018. Sergei Shoigu told Russian news agencies Thursday the military is planning to put a large modern base on the islands with equipment necessary for border protection. Shoigu said Russia had nearly completed several new bases with the largest on Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago.

The Kuril islands lie just north of Japan's main northern island, Hokkaido. The 1,300-kilometer-long archipelago has been under Moscow's control since Soviet troops seized it in the closing days of World War Two. Japan claims the four southernmost islands as its own. The matter has remained unresolved since 1945, so the two countries have yet to sign a peace treaty to formally end the war, which prevents closer political and economic ties between the neighbors.

In 2012, two-thirds of a century after the end of World War II, a state of war between Japan and Russia existed technically because the government in Moscow had refused in the intervening years to sign the 1951 peace treaty. The main stumbling block in all Japan's subsequent efforts to establish bilateral relations on what it called "a truly stable basis" was the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories.

The Kremlin considers the Northern Territories to be the price Japan paid for what the Russians believe was Tokyo's treachery in backing Hitler - and partial compensation for the millions of lives Moscow lost to Berlin during the war. Japan lacks a plan to negotiate the return of the Northern Territories. On 08 March 2008, Russian Embassy First Secretary Yuri Yuriev rejected, using the strongest language to date, any possibility of change in Moscow's views on the Northern Territories. According to Yuriev, the situation regarding the Northern Territories is "the result of Japan's fiasco during World War II," and represents "a payment for its aggressive military policy and the alliance with Hitler's Germany." He continued that "no Russian leader who wants to continue in his job until the new election would ever think about returning the islands to Japan." The status quo would continue until Japan altered its "principled position" demanding the return of the four islands.

Most Japanese academic debate about the Northern Territories is mired in tired, decades-old debates about the nuance that exists between the 1956 and 1993 declarations "angels on the head of a pin"-type arguments which have no practical application to finding a solution to the Northern Territories problem today. Japan has emphasized to the Russians that they would not be subjected to dispossession or any type of mistreatment if the islands were to revert to Japanese control. Japan's ultimate goal is to have both Japanese and Russian residents living together under Japanese authority. With the average age of the 8,076 remaining Japanese residents of the islands nearing 73 [as of 2007], many people fear that the momentum behind the campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories will decline.

The territorial dispute prohibited the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty. On 01 November 2010 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the island chain claimed by Moscow and Tokyo, sparking sharp criticism from Japan. He was the first Russian president to visit one of the disputed Kurile Islands. Medvedev said he visited the islands because he was interested in seeing how residents on the southernmost isle of Kunashir live. He said he wanted to make sure that the leading social standards, on the islands, coincide with Russian standards throughout the country and that it is important that there are specialists and doctors in the area. Angry over Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's visit to a disputed island chain, Japan temporarily called its ambassador back from Russia.

The possibility of the return of the two islands designated in the 1956 declaration to Japan has been repeatedly floated and then shelved by Putin's administration. The four islands present economic interest for both Russia and Japan, as a great part of their value lies not in the land, but in the fish-rich waters. The return of the islands is seen as the matter of national pride in both countries.

Kuril - Description

The Kurilskiye Ostrova (Kurile Islands) are a chain of volcanic islands that connect the northern Japanese islands to the Russian Sredinnyy Khrebet Mountains on the Kamchatskaya Oblast (Kamchatka Peninsula). Kamchatka Peninsula separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. To the south lies the Kurile Strait, which separates the peninsula from the Kurile Islands. Extending from lat. 51N to lat. 61N, it is 750 mi (1,207 km) long and terminates in the south in Cape Lopatka, beyond which lie the Kurile Islands.

Extending between northeastern Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, the Kurils islands are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that runs from New Zealand, around Australia and through Indonesia, up the eastern coast of Asia, along the Aleutian Islands, and down the western coast of the Americas. Island arcs form along an active boundary between two tectonic plates, where one plate is being driven beneath the other (subduction). Magma generated by the subduction process feeds volcanoeswhich eventually form volcanic islands over the subduction boundary.

The low temperature, high humidity, and persistent fog make the islands unpleasant for human habitation. There are, however, communities engaged in sulfur mining, hunting, and fishing. Besides being a highly active geothermal area, this region is well-known for its abundant and diverse wildlife. These islands are home to dense populations of sea birds, sea otter, Orcas, minke whales, sea lions, seals, fish, crabs, and many other types of marine life.

The Kurile chain of islands extends in almost a straight line in a north-east direction, from the east coast of Yezo to the southen extremity of Kamchatka, a distance of about 630 miles. This line may be regarded as a line of weakness in th Earth's crust, out of which, at fairly equally spaced intervals volcanic materials have been ejected to form islands. Parallel with the main fissure, on its western side, is a second line of vents at wider intervals, and apparently of more recent origin This line runs through Alaid, Shirinki, Makanrushir, Ekarmi Chirinkotan, Raikoke, and Makanruru to the volcanoes on th peninsulas standing out from the north-west coast of Yetoruf (which, from appearances, were once separated from that island} and across to the Sirotoko peninsula of volcanoes forming the north-east point of Yezo.

Kurile Islands is an archipelago located between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean. The archipelago is comprised of 30 large and many small islands which are still active causing frequent earthquakes.

Kuril - History

Strains in the Tokyo-Moscow relationship have deep historical roots, going back to the competition of the Japanese and Russian empires for dominance in Northeast Asia. This longstanding antipathy stems from the Russo-Japanese rivalry in Korea, Manchuria, and China proper in the late nineteenth century, from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; and from the Soviet declaration of war on Japan in the last days of World War II, in violation of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact of 1941.

The Kurile Islands were discovered by De Vrees, a Dutch navigator, in 1634. They are also said to have been discovered in 1654 by a merchant named Taras Stadukin, who sailed from the Kolyma River. He passed through Bering Strait, and followed the coast of Kamchatka, doubling the southernmost cape, and making the discovery of the Kurils.

The Russian-Japanese competition for the islands began at least as early as in the eighteenth century. In 1711 the Russians first invaded the islands, and in 1736 all these to the north of Yetorup became subject to Russia.

In 1738 Spanberg sailed with three small vessels to examine the Kurils, and wintered in Kamchatka. In 1766-7 a voyage was made amongst them to collect a fur-tax, and in 1795 the Russian-American Company established a factory on Urup. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Japanese established themselves on Yetorup.

By 1804, Russia and Japan essentially shared control of the islands, with Japanese influence stronger in the North and Russian in the South Kuril Islands. Formally, though, Russia continued to own the entire archipelago. In 1806-7 the Russians made descents on that island. In November, 1830, the Russian-American Company took formal possession of the Kurils.

On February 7 (January 26, Julian calendar), 1855, Russia and Japan signed the first bilateral commerce and border treaty that proclaimed relations of peace and friendship between the two countries, opened up three Japanese ports to Russian vessels and established a border in the vicinity of the South Kuril archipelago, between the islands of Urup and Iturup.

The Treaty of Shimoda laid an official basis for Russo-Japanese trade. This treaty was part of the general treaty agreement following Admiral Perry's opening of Japan. It diverted a conflict between the two countries by establishing an agreed upon border line, just south of the island of Irup, with each country receiving ownership of a specific portion of the Kurils. This agreement specified that Japan would have sovereignty over the four southernmost islands - Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai (a cluster of small islands that the Russians identify as the Little Kurile Chain).

The Treaty of St. Petersburg, signed in 1875, amended the Shimoda Treaty in several ways. The Russians had decided that their primary interests lay in Sakhalin Island. It is a large island with many resources and is closer to the Russian mainland. The Treaty of St. Petersburg granted all the Kurile Islands to the Japanese and Russia would have the sole right of ownership of Sakhalin Island. All the Kurils north of Yetorup were handed over to Japan by Russia, in exchange for the southern part of Sakhalin.

The 1875 treaty remained in force until 1905 when Russia and Japan signed the Portsmouth peace treaty. Japan emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, with Russia ceding the entire Kuril archipelago and some territory in the south of Sakhalin island.

In 1884 the Japanese government removed the few remaining Kurilsky Ainu to the island of Shikotan, thus leaving the islands from Urup to Shumshir without a single inhabitant.

In February 1945 at the Yalta Conference the USSR was promised possession of the Kurile Island chain in exchange for entering into the Pacific War against Japan and Russia's claims should be 'unquestionably fulfilled' after Japan's defeat. The Potsdam Declarations of August 1945, which Japan accepted on 14 August 1945, limited Japan territorial sovereignty to the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku and "such minor islands as we determine."

On 8 August the Soviet Union entered the war in the Pacific. This was after the America bombing of Hiroshima and six days before the surrender of Japan. Russians began occupying the Kurils on 18 August. Soviet occupation included the four islands nearest Hokkaido which had never been considered part of Russian territory in any of the earlier treaties signed by the two countries. But World War II afforded the opportunity for the Soviet Union to gain by a shrewd combination of diplomacy and force what Japan would never have yielded in times of peace during the last two centuries.

On 25 February 1947 the Kurils were formally integrated as a part of the USSR. During this year approximately 17,000 Japanese who lived on the islands were deported - "driven forcibly from the Kurils. '' Occupation of the islands and the deportation of the Japanese were all legal acts carried out as part of the reward for victory in war. In 1949, the Japanese released their first official government position paper on the Islands. It said that the Yalta Agreement had no basis in international law and claimed the four southern Islands as the territory of Japan.

During the San Francisco Peace Conference of 1951 Japan agreed to renounce all rights and claims to southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. The USSR was not a signatory of the Peace Treaty signed in San Francisco and this treaty clearly envisages that it does not grant a nonsignatory country any rights. Japan later claimed that the San Francisco Peace Treaty did not include the four southern islands since, in their view, these four islands had never been part of the Kurile chain. The islands are known as Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

There has long been strong opposition in Japan to Moscow's refusal to accede to Japan's claims to the Northern Territories, known to the Japanese as Etorofu and Kunashiri, at the southern end of the Kuril Island chain, and the smaller island of Shikotan and the Habomai Islands, northeast of Hokkaido, which were seized by the Soviets in the last days of World War II. The stationing of Soviet military forces on the islands gave tangible proof of the Soviet threat, and provocative maneuvers by Soviet air and naval forces in Japanese- claimed territory served to reinforce Japanese official policy of close identification with a firm United States-backed posture against Soviet power. In 1979 the Japanese government specifically protested a build up in Soviet forces in Etorofu, Kunashiri, and Shikotan.

During the first half of the 1950s, other unsettled problems included Japanese fishing rights in the Sea of Okhotsk and off the coast of the Soviet maritime provinces and repatriation of Japanese prisoners of war, who were still being held in the Soviet Union. Negotiation of these issues broke down early in 1956 because of tension over territorial claims. Negotiations soon resumed, however, and the two countries issued a joint declaration in October 1956 providing for the restoration of diplomatic relations. The two parties also agreed to continue negotiations for a peace treaty, including territorial issues.

The Soviet Union sought to induce Japan to abandon its territorial claims by alternating threats and persuasion. As early as 1956, it hinted at the possibility of considering the return of the Habomai Islands and Shikotan if Japan abandoned its alliance with the United States. In 1960 the Soviet government warned Japan against signing the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States, and after the treaty was signed, declared that it would not hand over the Habomai Islands and Shikotan under any circumstances unless Japan abrogated the treaty forthwith. In 1964 the Soviet Union offered to return these islands unconditionally if the United States ended its military presence on Okinawa and the main islands of Japan. Despite divergence on the territorial question, on which neither side was prepared to give ground, Japan's relations with the Soviet Union improved appreciably after the mid-1960s.

Japanese-Soviet political relations during the 1970s were characterized by the frequent exchange of high-level visits to explore the possibility of improving bilateral relations and by repeated discussions of a peace treaty, which were abortive because neither side was prepared to yield on the territorial issue. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko of the Soviet Union visited Tokyo in January 1976 to resume talks on the peace treaty. When the Japanese again refused to budge on the territorial question, Gromyko, according to the Japanese, offered to return two of the Soviet-held island areas--the Habomai Islands and Shikotan--if Japan would sign a treaty of goodwill and cooperation.

The advent of the Mikhail Gorbachev regime in Moscow in 1985 saw a replacement of hard-line Soviet government diplomats who were expert in Asian affairs with more flexible spokespersons calling for greater contact with Japan. Gorbachev took the lead in promising new initiatives in Asia, but the substance of Soviet policy changed more slowly. In particular, throughout the rest of the 1980s, Soviet officials still seemed uncompromising regarding the Northern Territories. The Japanese government stated that it would not conduct normal relations with the Soviet Union until Moscow returned the Northern Territories. The government and Japanese business leaders stated further that Japanese trade with and investment in the Soviet Union would not grow appreciably until the Northern Territories issue had been resolved.

By 1990 the Soviet government had altered its tactics. The Soviet Union now acknowledged that the territorial issue was a problem and talked about it with Japanese officials at the highest levels and in working-level meetings. Soviet officials reportedly floated a proposal to lease the Northern Territories and part of Sakhalin--once a colonial holding of Japan's--to Japan. Gorbachev and others also referred to a 1956 Soviet offer to return one of the three main islands (Shikotan, the smallest of the three) and the Habomai Islands, and there were indications that Moscow might be prepared to revive the offer. The Soviet Union emphasized that it would not return all the islands because of Soviet public opposition and the possible reawakening of other countries' territorial claims against the Soviet Union. The Soviet military reportedly opposed a return because the Kuril Islands provided a protective barrier to the Sea of Okhotsk, where the Soviet navy deployed submarines carrying long-range ballistic missiles.

The government of Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Once again, Moscow took a stand in firm opposition to returning the disputed territories to Japan. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in providing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Japan and Russia remained cool. In September 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin postponed a scheduled visit to Japan. The visit finally took place in October 1993. During the visit, although various substantive issues, including the Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty, were discussed, no significant improvement was seen in Japan-Russia relations.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan initiated a humanitarian assistance program to provide basic needs to the islands' residents. After a devastating earthquake subsequently rocked the islands and eastern Hokkaido, Japan responded by increasing humanitarian assistance through the construction of new schools and a new electric generation plant on the affected islands.

In 1977 Japan became bound by a 200-mile EEZ that limits its access to the plentiful crab, salmon and seaweed (konbu) found in the Northern Territories' waters. Each year Japan pays Russia 122 million yen (USD 1.1 million) for the rights to harvest seaweed from Kaigara Island in the Habomai Group of islets. The season runs from June 1 until the end of September, with June and July comprising the peak harvest period.

A poll conducted by the Hokkaido Shimbun in November 2005 that interviewed residents from three of the islands (the fourth is uninhabited) regarding the possible return of the islands to Japanese authority. Eighty percent of Etorofu residents and 63 percent of Kunashiri residents were opposed, but more than 50 percent of Shikotan residents were in favor. Russia offered to return Shikotan and the uninhabited islet group of Habomai in the 1956 Japan-U.S.S.R. Joint Declaration and has referred to this document in subsequent negotiations. Shikotan has more exposure to Japanese former islanders since it was first to participate in the visa-free exchanges.

At PM Shinzo Abe's 07 June 2007 meeting with Russian President Putin on the margins of the G-8 Summit, the two leaders agreed that they would not shelve the Northern Territories issue. Putin said he was ready to talk, wanted to remove any obstacles to settlement, and hoped to avoid stagnation in the discussions.

Meeting in Sydney on 07 September 2007, former Prime Minister Abe and President Putin discussed four main topics, according to Otsuki and former Russia Division Principal Deputy Director Kazuhiko Nakamura: 1) Northern Territories, 2) Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia Cooperation, 3) climate change, and 4) youth exchanges. On the Northern Territories, the two leaders stressed the importance of making progress on negotiating a settlement. Abe and Putin instructed their staffs to take steps to resolve the status of the four islands, but presented no new ideas for resolving the land dispute and provided no specific guidance about how to proceed.

Japan PM Aso expressed concern with the pace of working-level discussions on the Northern Territories during talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the margins of the 22-23 November 2008 APEC Summit in Lima, Peru. Medvedev said a solution would require strong political will by leaders on both sides, and he promised not to delay resolution until the "next generation." MOFA officials feel confident about Medvedev's commitment to resolve the issue, but claim lower-level officials are not adequately informing the President.

Japan rivals China as the leading Asian investor in Russia. The 18 February 2009 start of liquified natural gas shipments between Japan and Russia - energy supplies which Japan desperately needed much more than it needed an immediate resolution of the Northern Territories issue - basically ensured that neither side will risk disrupting the Japan-Russia relationship.

In 2009 Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian President to visit the island group, home to 19,000 Russians who live largely off fishing. In February 2010, his defense minister visited the largest island. Japans prime minister Naoto Kan called the Russian visits an unforgivable outrage. Japanese rightists protested in Tokyo, trampling a Russian flag and mailing a bullet to the Russian Embassy. On 10 February 2010 apan and Russias top diplomats traded undiplomatic language Friday over a 65-year-old standoff over disputed Islands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Japans position radical, adding that dialogue has "no chance." Seated next to the Russian diplomat at a press conference in Moscow Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara responded icily: "The Northern Territories are age-old Japanese territory."

Documents which have been agreed to so far include the 1956 Joint Declaration, 1993 Tokyo Declaration, 2001 Irkutsk Statement, 2003 Action Plan. The March 2001 Irkutsk Statement and the January 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan both called for the two countries to promote economic exchanges while strengthening efforts to resolve the territorial issue. Domestic concerns in Tokyo and Moscow will block any new initiative on the Northern Territories issue.

Russia launched an investment program for the Kuril Islands, including its military in 2011, amid growing calls in Japan to take the disputed territory back. Over the next three years the Defense Ministry sent some 350 modern vehicles to the islands and ramped up combat readiness of the stationed troops.

The Russian Defense Ministry will modernize military settlements on the Kuril Islands and supply some 120 new combat vehicles by the end of 2014. Russias sovereignty over four of the islands is disputed by Tokyo. Over the period to 2016 all major objects more than 150 of them on the islands of Iturup and Kunashir will be completed. Those will be modern fully autonomous military settlements with a developed social infrastructure, Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin, commander of the Russian eastern military district, said 18 April 2014. The military in the Kuril Islands will also receive 120 additional vehicles, including armored ones, by the end of the year, the general added. There are some 20,000 people living there at the moment, many of them Russian military and their families, who may see their living conditions improved in coming years.




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