Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 130

The four South Kuril Islands, long a source of diplomatic dispute between Russia and Japan, have in recent weeks also been at the center of a controversy that is sharpening tensions between Japan and South Korea. The issue in question is fishing rights. Under a deal struck last December by the Russian and South Korean governments, South Korean fishing boats have been given permission to catch some 15,000 tons of fish between July 15 and November 15 of this year in waters off the South Kurils. The problem is that the Russian-controlled islands are claimed by Japan, and have been the subject of intense negotiations between Moscow and Tokyo over the past several years. Against this background, the Japanese government has objected to the Russian-South Korean fishing agreement on the grounds that it constitutes a violation of Japanese sovereignty–and has threatened retaliatory action against Seoul. The Russian and South Korean governments, meanwhile, have depicted the fishing agreement as a simple commercial venture, and have intimated that Japan is overreacting by politicizing it. The issue has taken on some additional urgency, not only because the starting date for the South Korean fishing operation is fast approaching, but because tensions between Japan and South Korea have already been rubbed raw in recent months by a worsening disagreement over Japanese history textbooks.

The Japanese government has repeatedly made known its unhappiness to Moscow over the Russian-South Korean fishing agreement, and last week stepped up diplomatic efforts aimed quashing deal. In a letter dated July 1, Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka warned her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, that a Russian decision to go through with the fishing deal could have an adverse impact on relations between Moscow and Tokyo. An earlier letter from Tanaka, sent last month and conveying the same message, reportedly went unanswered by Moscow. Meanwhile, on July 6 Japan raised the issue again, this time during a meeting in Moscow between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov and the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for European Affairs, Kyoji Komachi. The Japanese diplomat conveyed Tokyo’s dismay over the fishing dispute and issued another warning–this one to the effect that the Russian-South Korean deal could “dampen efforts” by Russia and Japan to reach a settlement of the islands dispute. Komachi also demanded quick action to terminate the deal before the official launch of fishing on July 15.

Official Russian reactions to the Japanese appeals have been proper but noncommittal. In Ivanov’s response to Tanaka’s letter the Russian Foreign Minister said that Moscow is prepared to take into account Tokyo’s position, and that he hopes the two countries can find a mutually acceptable middle ground to help resolve the dispute. Similarly, Losyukov emphasized in his talks with Komachi the “purely commercial nature” of the Russian-South Korean agreement and said that it was better not to politicize the issue. On the ground, however, the Russians have seemingly been less accommodating toward Tokyo. On July 3, for example, Losyukov appeared to bluntly dismiss the Japanese challenge to the Russian-South Korean fishing deal. Then, on July 5, and well after the dispatch of Tanaka’s letter to Ivanov, the South Korean Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry disclosed that Russia had in fact issued the permits necessary for South Korean boats to begin operating off the Kurils on July 15. On July 6 officials in Seoul said that twenty-six South Korean vessels were in full preparation for the upcoming operation and that “as scheduled and agreed with Russia, our vessels will begin to operate in the Kuril waters.”

Meanwhile, talks in Seoul on July 7 between South Korean and Japanese officials failed to resolve differences on the fishing dispute. The Japanese side continued to insist that the South Korean-Russian agreement recognized Russian rather than Japanese sovereignty over the disputed islands (which are called the “northern territories” in Japan). They also suggested that Tokyo would follow through with a retaliatory threat announced earlier by forbidding South Korean mackerel boats to operate in Japan’s territorial waters. Under a 1998 agreement between the two countries, South Korean and Japanese fishing boats are allowed some rights to fish in each other’s exclusive economic zones (AFP, June 22, July 6; New York Times, June 26; Kyodo, July 3, 5-7; UPI, July 7; Japan Times, July 4, 7-8).

The Russian-Japanese fishing row, ironically, comes only days after Losyukov proclaimed that bilateral relations between the two countries “have reached a good level, and are at the highest point we have seen in recent years.” Losyukov attributed the upturn in part to a reportedly productive visit a group of Japanese business executives made to Russia last month (AFP, July 2). The health of broader Russian-Japanese relations right now is important because of a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Kunichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the July 20-22 meeting of the Group of Seven countries and Russia in Genoa. The two men are to discuss a number of key international and bilateral issues at that time, including their respective views on U.S. missile defense plans. Equally important from Koizumi’s perspective is the hope that the Genoa talks will help jumpstart talks between Moscow and Tokyo on the Kuril Islands territorial issue and on the related subject of a peace treaty formally ending World War II. At a summit meeting between Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori this past May the two sides appeared to make some small progress in these negotiations. Since its ascent to power, however, the Koizumi government appears to have repudiated accords reached at the Mori-Putin meeting (see the Monitor, May 15). That has left relations between the two countries–and their negotiations on the peace treaty and the territorial dispute–in a limbo that needs to be sorted out by the two leaders.