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International Relations

Kuril Island Dispute

  • 23 Apr 2022
  • 7 min read

For Prelims: Diplomatic Bluebook, Kuril Island Dispute, Treaties and Agreements Related to Kuril Islands

For Mains: World War II, International Treaties & Agreements, Kuril Island Dispute

Why in News?

Recently, Japan described four islands whose ownership it disputes with Russia as illegally occupied in the latest version of a diplomatic Bluebook.

  • The use of stronger language underscored the chilled relations between the two sides amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russia refers to these islands as the Kuril Islands, whereas Japan calls them Northern territories.
  • Japan is also having a similar dispute regarding Northern territories with South Korea. South Korea refers to as Dokdo islands.

What is Diplomatic Bluebook?

  • The Diplomatic Bluebook of Japan is an annual report on Japan's foreign policy and international diplomacy published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan.
  • It has been published every year since its first issue in September 1957.

What is the Geographic Location and Significance of the Kuril Islands?

  • Location:
    • The Kuril Islands are stretched from the Japanese island of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula separating the Okhotsk Sea from the North Pacific Ocean.
    • The chain is part of the belt of geologic instability circling the Pacific (Ring of Fire) and contains at least 100 volcanoes, of which 35 are still active, and many hot springs.
  • Significance:
    • Natural resources: The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are thought to have offshore reserves of oil and gas.
    • Strategic Importance: Russia has deployed missile systems in the region. Russia also plans a submarine project and intends to prevent any American military use of the islands.
    • Cultural Importance: The Japanese people, especially conservatives in Hokkaido, are emotionally attached to the islands.

What is the History of the Kuril Islands Dispute?

  • Background:
    • The Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and Russia is over the sovereignty of South Kuril Islands.
    • The South Kuril Islands comprise Etorofu island, Kunashiri island, Shikotan island and the Habomai island.
      • These islands are claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union.
  • Treaty of Shimoda (1855):
    • In 1855, Japan and Russia concluded the Treaty of Shimoda, which gave control of the four southernmost islands to Japan and the remainder of the chain to Russia.
  • Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1875):
    • In the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, signed between the two countries in 1875, Russia ceded possession of the Kurils to Japan in exchange for uncontested control of Sakhalin Island.
    • However, these islands were again seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
  • Yalta Agreement (1945):
    • In 1945, as part of the Yalta agreements (formalized in the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan), the islands were ceded to the Soviet Union, and the Japanese population was repatriated and replaced by the Soviets.
  • San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951):
    • The San Francisco Peace Treaty signed between the Allies and Japan in 1951, states that Japan must give up “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands”, but it also does not recognize the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over them.
      • In World War II, the main combatants were:
        • Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan)
        • Allies (France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China).
  • Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration (1956):
    • The dispute over the islands has prevented the conclusion of a peace treaty to end World War II.
    • In 1956, diplomatic ties were restored between Japan and Russia by Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration.
    • During that time, Russia offered to give away the two islands closest to Japan. But the offer was rejected by Japan as the two islands constituted only 7% of the land in question.

What is the Current Scenario?

  • Despite a series of agreements, the dispute continues, and Japan still claims historical rights to the southernmost islands and has tried repeatedly to persuade the Soviet Union and, from 1991, Russia to return those islands to Japanese sovereignty.
  • In 2018, the Russian President and the Japanese Prime Minister (PM) met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit and decided to end the territorial dispute by the Japanese PM agreeing to negotiate based on the 1956 declaration.
    • This implicitly showed that Japan has given up the two islands to maintain peace with Russia.
  • However, Russia indicated that the joint declaration signed by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956 neither mentions a basis for returning Habomai and Shikotan nor clarifies which country has sovereignty over the islands.
  • Further, in 2019, the Japanese PM made it clear that the country is not in the favour of withdrawing control over the Islands.
  • Japan also believes that the islands are an inherent part of the nation’s territory.
  • Therefore, Japan mentioned that it aims to sign the peace treaty after the territorial issue is resolved.

Source: TH

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