Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 153

Moscow added insult to injury in its relations with Tokyo this week when it agreed to permit both North Korean and Ukrainian fishing boats to join those of South Korea in fishing the waters off the disputed Kuril Islands. The fishing dispute between Russia, South Korea and Japan is a longstanding one, and involves Tokyo’s sharp opposition to fishing rights extended by Moscow to South Korean boats seeking to fish the waters off the four Russian-controlled islands. The Japanese government, which claims the islands and has negotiated fishing rights for its own boats in the disputed waters, has interpreted the presence of the South Korean boats as a challenge to Japanese claims of sovereignty over the islands. The Russian government, however, has brushed aside the Japanese objections (most recently on August 2) and last month permitted the South Korean boats to begin their fishing operations. The dispute has also further sharpened tensions between the governments of Japan and South Korea, which are also at odds over a Japanese history textbook controversy (see the Monitor, July 9).

Moscow has repeatedly declared that its decision to allow South Korean boats to fish the waters off the Kurils is not political, but the move to extend these same rights to North Korean and Ukrainian boats appears designed to punctuate its claim of sovereignty over the islands. Not surprisingly, the move drew fresh protests from the Japanese government this week. Senior Japanese government officials called the Russian decision “regrettable” and said that they had conveyed to Moscow Tokyo’s position “that [it] cannot allow such operations.” The South Korean boats were given rights to fish the waters off the Kurils from July 15-November 15, but it is unclear exactly when the North Korean and Ukrainian boats will actually arrive in the area, or how long they will be permitted to stay (DPA, July 31, August 2; AFP, August 8).

The larger issue looming behind the fishing controversy is, of course, the Russian-Japanese dispute over the four Southern-most Kuril Islands. The islands were seized by Soviet troops at the very close of World War II and the issue has remained since then the primary obstacle to fully normalized relations between Russia and Japan. In 1998 Japan launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at bridging differences over the islands and the two countries had hoped, by the year 2000, to have finalized a peace treaty that would both bring a formal close to World War II and make the island dispute a thing of the past. That has not occurred, however, and the mixed signals coming out of Tokyo since the election of Prime Minister Kunichiro Koizumi suggest that negotiations may bump up against new obstacles. Koizumi and his foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, appear to have staked out a harder line position on the islands dispute, although the Japanese prime minister agreed during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the recent G-7 Summit in Genoa to kick off a new dialogue on the islands issue. Koizumi is expected to travel to Moscow for a summit meeting with Putin toward the end of this year or early in 2002.