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The Kurile Islands

The Kurile islands are an archipelago extending north from Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost large island) to the southern tip of the Sakhalin peninsula (which extends south into the Pacific from eastern Siberia).  The islands, in effect, form a partition enclosing the Sea of Okhotsk from the larger Pacific.  These largely uninhabited islands, used for centuries as outposts by fisherman and sealers, were first formally divided between Russia and Japan by the Simodsky agreement (1855).  Simodsky established the Russo-Japanese border between Iturup and Urup, with the four islands to the south of the line belonging to Japan.  The Kurile Islands“Subsequent treaties saw the Kuriles and Sakhalin change hands repeatedly, but at no point were the South Kuriles – Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai archipelago – ever in Russia’s possession.  It was the 1945 Yalta conference that decided to hand Russia possession of all of Sakhalin and the Kuriles. Japan, of course, was not present at that conference. Recognition of the Yalta conference agreements was one of the conditions of the San Francisco peace treaty signed by Japan in 1951. But a fatal mistake on Stalin’s part meant the Soviet Union didn’t sign the treaty, making it look like both sides renounced the Kuriles. Japan’s argument is that the four islands it claims are not part of the Kuriles group. This is why Japan always refers to them as the Northern Territories.   But this has done nothing to help return the islands, occupied by the Soviet Union after the war against Japan had ended. For three years, they were seen as temporarily occupied territories, and only in 1948 did the Soviet Union annex them and deport the local Japanese population.”

Despite the apparent limited economic value of the islands, sovereignty touches emotional chords in both Russia and Japan.  For many Russians, especially those of the World War II generation, the southern Kuriles are tangible evidence of Russia’s last international victory of world-wide importance.  The recent devolution of the Soviet Union and the economic dislocation that followed has perhaps even hardened these views and Russian leaders are surely sensitive to them.  (For example, before departing Moscow for his August 2000 conference Prime Minister Mori, President Putin stated that he would not bargain the islands away. [Islands stumbling block for Putin and Mori])  By the same token, “Tokyo is wary of a right-wing backlash should it abandon its claim to the islands and has been cool to the notion of an interim deal.”

For Russia, however, there is a conflicting economic impulse.  Its annual bilateral trade with Japan is minuscule (about $5-6 billion) compared with the comparable Japan-China numbers ($60-70 billion).  As a practical matter, Russia simply does not have the assets to develop the Kuriles, although there is ample evidence that modern fishing fleets and ore extraction technologies could generate many billions annually.  As a practical matter, this will have to come from Japan.

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