Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 4

The Kuril Islands territorial dispute was back in the headlines yesterday. Both Russian and Japanese officials denied a Japanese newspaper report alleging that Tokyo was preparing a new proposal calling for Moscow to transfer two of the four disputed islands to Japan. The report, published earlier in the day by the “Yomiuri” newspaper, quoted unnamed Japanese government sources as saying that Tokyo was prepared to propose an interim treaty under which Moscow would return Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands to Japan. The interim treaty would also contain a provision stating that the question of sovereignty over the remaining two islands would be dealt with in a future peace treaty between the two countries.

According to “Yomiuri,” the interim treaty would also specify that Tokyo acknowledges a 1956 Japanese-Soviet Joint Declaration under which Moscow agreed to return Shikotan and the Habomai islands to Japan following the signing of a peace treaty formally ending World War II. The newspaper report said that Tokyo had drafted the new proposal because Japanese leaders were growing increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for signing a full-fledged Japanese-Russian peace treaty by the year 2000. That goal had been set by President Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto during a summit meeting in November 1997. The inability to resolve the territorial dispute–which involves an effort by Japan to recover the four south Kuril Islands seized by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II–has thus far stymied Japanese-Russian peace treaty negotiations.

A host of Russian diplomats yesterday categorically rejected Yomiuri’s report of a possible interim Russian-Japanese treaty. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said that “no such discussions have ever taken place” between Russia and Japan. The article is “pure speculation,” he added. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, who co-chairs the Japanese-Russian commission tasked with drafting a peace treaty, spoke in similar terms. Karasin called the Japanese report “unfounded,” and complained that the report appeared to be aimed at stirring up public opinion on the issue (Russian agencies, January 6).

Japanese Chief Cabinet Spokesman Hiromu Nonaka also denied the Yomiuri report yesterday. He called it “groundless” and said that its publication “runs counter to [Japan’s] national interests.” A Japanese Foreign Ministry official, however, was reported to be a bit more circumspect in his comments on the report. He suggested that the allegations were not entirely false and that Tokyo might–with a view, ultimately, toward getting all of the disputed islands back–be willing to take a gradual approach to the problem at the present time (Reuters, Russian agencies, January 6).