Kuril is­lands - strate­gic chain at the heart of Rus­sia-Ja­pan dis­pute

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Known as the South­ern Kurils by Rus­sia and the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ries by Ja­pan, a string of des­o­late vol­canic is­lands are at the heart of a feud be­tween the two coun­tries dat­ing back to World War II. As Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin heads for talks with Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe in Ja­pan over the ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute that has pre­vented the sides sign­ing a for­mal treaty to end the war, here are some key facts on the is­lands:

The dis­puted is­lands of Itu­rup (Eto­rofu in Ja­panese), Ku­nashir (Ku­nashiri), Shikotan and Habo­mai at their clos­est point lie just a few kilo­me­ters off the north coast of Hokkaido. They are the south­ern­most ter­ri­to­ries in a vol­canic chain that sep­a­rates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pa­cific Ocean. They are lo­cated to the south­east of the Rus­sian is­land of Sakhalin and are ad­min­is­tra­tively part of the same re­gion, al­though Tokyo con­sid­ers them part of its Hokkaido pre­fec­ture and “il­le­gally oc­cu­pied by Rus­sia”.

Rus­sian Em­press Cather­ine the Great in 1786 claimed sovereignty over the Kuril is­lands af­ter her gov­ern­ment de­clared they were dis­cov­ered by “Rus­sian ex­plor­ers” and there­fore “un­doubt­edly must be­long to Rus­sia”. In the first treaty be­tween tsarist Rus­sia and Ja­pan in 1855 the fron­tier be­tween the two coun­tries was drawn just north of the four is­lands clos­est to Ja­pan. Twenty years later in 1875, a new treaty handed Tokyo the en­tire chain, in ex­change for Rus­sia gain­ing full con­trol of the is­land of Sakhalin. Ja­pan also seized back con­trol of the south­ern half of Sakhalin af­ter its crush­ing de­feat of Moscow in the 1905 Rus­soJa­panese War.

Soviet takeover

The Kuril is­lands have been back at the cen­tre of a dis­pute be­tween Moscow and Tokyo since Soviet troops in­vaded them in the fi­nal days of World War II. The USSR only en­tered into war with Ja­pan on Au­gust 9, 1945 just af­ter the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The troops com­pleted the takeover of the is­lands af­ter Ja­pan’s gen­eral sur­ren­der later that month. Rus­sia ar­gues that US pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt promised Stalin he could take back the Kurils in ex­change for join­ing the war against Ja­pan at the Yalta con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary 1945 at which the Al­lied lead­ers di­vided up the post-war world. The Soviet cap­ture of the is­lands has since pre­vented Moscow and Tokyo from sign­ing a for­mal peace treaty to end the war, de­spite re­peated at­tempts over the past 70 years to reach a deal. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev first of­fered to give Ja­pan the two small­est is­lands, Shikotan and Habo­mai, in ex­change for sign­ing a peace treaty, but in the face of US op­po­si­tion those talks went nowhere.

The is­lands’ cur­rent pop­u­la­tion is less than 17,000 peo­ple but the ter­ri­tory is “im­por­tant from all points of view”, said Valery Kis­tanov, who heads the Cen­tre for Ja­panese Stud­ies at the Rus­sian In­sti­tute of the Far East.

“They are rich in hot springs and min­er­als and rare met­als such as rhe­nium” which is used in pro­duc­tion of su­per­sonic air­craft, he said. But the “great­est value” of the is­lands lies in their geo­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion at the meet­ing of warm and cool water cur­rents, which is ben­e­fi­cial both for fish­eries and the Rus­sian navy too, he said. — AFP

This file photo shows then Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev walk­ing near Soviet-era for­ti­fi­ca­tions dur­ing his visit to one of the Kuril is­lands. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin heads to Ja­pan to­mor­row to meet Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe in the lat­est bid to reach an elu­sive deal on a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute that has pre­vented their na­tions sign­ing a for­mal treaty to end World War II. — AFP

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