GFJ Commentary

December 25, 2018 

The Northern Territories Issue Still No Signs of Headway


In the wake of the summit meeting between Prime Minister ABE Shinzo and Russian President Vladimir PUTIN, the Prime Minister side hinted at a possible development in the negotiation for reversion of the Northern Territories. The disputed four islands were illegally occupied by the Soviet military shortly before the end of the World War II, forcibly displacing the Japanese residents there, then numbering around 17,000. This is inexcusably egregious injustice committed by USSR. Then, the idea of seeking an initial return of two islands of Habomai and Shikotan reportedly under consideration by the Japanese government should be examined. I would assume that even the two islands would not stand a chance, let alone all the four islands. While there are many hurdles stalling the negotiation process, the biggest obstacle would be the feud over the creation of a US military base, which would unfortunately bring the negotiation process to a deadlock.

If the two islands were to be returned, the US will not agree with the ‘demilitarization’ of those islands which Russia strongly desires. ‘Demilitarization’ will exclude the two islands from the Japan-US Security Treaty, thus in principle, the US will not have its base there. It is, however, not possible to exclude a part of Japanese territory from the Japan-US security treaty. For Russia, from the Northern Territories and Kuril Islands to Kamchatka Peninsula is the defense line against the United States. 3,500 soldiers are stationed in Kunashiri and Etorofu islands, and surface-to-ship missiles were installed in 2016. Therefore, even if Russia hints to return Habomai and Shikontan islands, they will not return the sovereignty over the islands. Because if they do so, there is a possibility that the US base will be constructed there. If not giving the control to Japan, there is no possibility that the US military would be there. For Japan, the return of the islands without its control will not mean anything. So if that’s the case, Japan should not accept the return of the islands in such terms. It would be a bad example for Senkaku Islands, giving China an idea to take advantage. The US originally is not comfortable seeing Japan and Russia getting closer, due to its own rivalry against Russia. They feel better when the relations between Japan and Russia is struggled over the Northern Territories dispute. They may think that matches their interest, and when it comes to their military base, they will not compromise.

How many Japanese people are there, if the islands to be returned to Japan, who is willing to return or move to the returned island? The original inhabitants are already aged. The general public would be less likely willing to do so while the job offers are outnumbering the people in the main island. The jobs in the Northern islands are basically limited to fishery or tourism. Not a survey conducted by the governmental agencies have I heard of to study how many people willing to move to the Northern islands. How meaningful the two islands would be, if it were returned to Japan but no one wants to go there? Is the government willing to insist on the legal meaningfulness of taking back its original territory as the duty of the country, regardless of the existence of its people in the territory? The other difficult challenge is the financial cost. Russia will tell Japan to cover the moving cost of Russian inhabitants on the island to the Russian territory. There will also be costs on transferring the facilities. What about the infrastructure (roads, ports, etc.) invested by Russia? If Russian inhabitants will be to remain there, they will use the infrastructure. It would be a strange situation the returned island remains to be a Russians’ island. The cost related to the returning of the islands will be enormous, it could reach up to some trillion yens, and it will not be an amount easily acceptable for Japan, which is facing its own fiscal deficit issues. Would people support the more government bond to be issued for something that is not economically proven to be valuable, if it is legally meaningful and expanding the economic zone?

Mr. Kazuhiko Togo, former negotiator for the Northern Territories Issue as the Foreign Ministry’s Director-General in charge, says “the result of the Japan-Russia summit meeting this time was highly successful.” It was ‘successful’ perhaps in the light of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ logic, as their aim in the territorial negotiation is to have the negotiation, not necessarily to conclude the negotiation. On the other hand, Professor Akihiro Iwashita of Hokkaido University, who is the expert of the borderline studies, points out that “the Japan-Russia relations has been basically stable without the peace treaty. The reason why the Prime Minister wants to sign the peace treaty is because he wants to make it as a part of his own legacy.” The Northern Territories negotiation gives an impression that the politics is in the works on something major, but the newspaper editorials are critical: “Japan shall not compromise easily” (Yomiuri, Nov. 16, 2018), or “hasty change of the policy will leave the source of calamity” (Asahi, Nov. 16, 2018), among others. Der congress tanzt, they would not reach the conclusion of the issue. After all, it seems like it remains to be as it has been.

(This is an English translation of the article written by NAKAMURA Jin, former National Paper Writer, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Giron-Hyakushutsu (Hundred Views in Full Perspective)” of GFJ on November 27, 2018.)