Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 170

Despite a spy row which threatened to poison relations between Moscow and Tokyo (see the Monitor, September 11), speculation has continued in recent days over the possibility that the Kremlin remains interested in negotiating the return to Japan of two of the four disputed South Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the “Northern Territories”). Rumors to this effect, which were apparently rampant in Tokyo following the close of the September 4-5 summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, were given further credence this week by a senior Russian diplomat. Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov told reporters on September 11 that Russian and Japanese experts should discuss questions relative to “interpreting” the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. The 1956 accord reestablished diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Japan while also ending the state of war between the two countries (absent a full-blown peace treaty formally ending World War II). The Soviets also promised to hand over two of the four islands seized from Japan–Shikotan and Habomai–once the two countries had signed a formal peace treaty. By the terms of the agreement (which was never signed), the fate of the other two islands was to be settled at a later date.

According to Losyukov, Russian diplomats had reexamined the 1956 agreement prior to the latest Russian-Japanese summit meeting and determined “that it is both undesirable and impossible to turn it down, since it continues to operate legally.” He also referred to a repudiation of the 1956 agreement voiced earlier by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and said that it had introduced an element of uncertainty into Japanese-Soviet relations. “On the one hand,” Losyukov said, it turned out that we do not recognize the declaration, while on the other… it is the basis for our relations.” Losyukov said that it was this reconsideration by the Russian side of the 1956 agreement which prompted Putin to declare unexpectedly in Tokyo that “we recognize this declaration and regard it as important and useful” (see the Monitor, September 6). Losyukov also said that Putin and Mori had not discussed the possibility of returning two of the four disputed islands to Japan during their Tokyo summit talks (a view that rumors in Japan discounted). But he suggested that discussions on the subject could be taken up by the experts who have been tasked with drafting a Japanese-Russian peace treaty (Itar-Tass, September 11; AFP, September 12; Izvestia, September 9).

It remains to be seen whether anything will come of all this. Certainly Putin, with his strong nationalist credentials and still high levels of popularity, is better positioned than was his predecessor to make a territorial concession to Japan (in exchange, presumably, for vast amounts of Japanese economic aid). Yet even for Putin the move would carry enormous political risks. At the same time, however, Mori has recently hinted that more may have gone on regarding the island dispute than reports of the Tokyo summit indicated. In remarks to a Western journalist, the Japanese prime minister said that the two men had in fact made progress in this area during their summit talks. He also said that Putin had suggested his desire both to sign a peace treaty with Japan and to return the disputed territories. “But with his country in the shape it is in, he needs time,” Mori was quoted as saying (International Herald Tribune, September 14). It would be a surprise if Moscow does not in some way repudiate these statements. Yet, increasingly, there does seem to be some evidence accumulating which suggests that the Kremlin may be considering a way to break the impasse with Japan over the disputed islands, and that the offer of a return of two of them may lie at its heart.