Time for a Kurils Deal?

The Kuril Islands have long complicated ties between Japan and Russia. A deal is in both nations’ interests.

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba restarted a round of “half-in” strategic dialogue with his Russian counterpart during the latter’s visit to Tokyo. With Vladimir Putin seemingly set to retake control of the Russian presidency this year, Japan sees an opening to make constructive progress on their decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands. 

Attempts to decipher which country is the rightful owner of the islands is muddied by a series of treaties dating back to 1855. Russia and Japan have fought two wars since then, but Tokyo claims control of the Southern Kurils as the Northern Territories, and argues that the 1951 San Francisco treaty it signed renouncing ownership of the Kuril Islands doesn’t apply to the four southern islands. Moscow remains unyielding to Japan’s protests that the islands be “returned.”

Gemba has expressed hope that Japan-Russia relations can improve under Putin, who despite his hawkish defense policies, has acquiesced to the Japanese dialogue on the Kurils more than his predecessor Dmitri Medvedev. Driving this issue further, especially for Tokyo, is the recent death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and the uncertainty this brings to the fragile security architecture in East Asia. After official meetings in Tokyo, the ministers released a statement noting that “Japan-Russia relations are taking on a new importance amid drastic changes in the security environment in the Asia Pacific region.”

Unfortunately, Japan and Russia both continue to be treated as spare parts for the stalled Six Party talks, despite the fact that they both have the ability to serve a greater purpose. Russia has the ability to act as a key interlocutor between North Korea and its most vociferous opponents, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Russia also can work the middle ground between China and the United States and use its unique position to isolate Chinese intransigence on the North’s belligerent actions. Japan also remains underutilized mainly due its legacy of colonialism in Korea and its inability to find adequate closure to the issue of the abductions of its nationals. Despite these issues, Japan’s stake in the Six Party talks is as vital for its national security as denuclearization is for South Korea.

While the “drastic changes” referred to in the minister’s statement point to new leadership in Pyongyang, there’s also a subtle message about China’s ascendancy in Asia. A strong Russo-Japanese strategic partnership would not only work on multilateral security initiatives such as the Six Party talks, but would also look to hedge a growing China. Both countries want this badly, but recognize it’s politically unpalatable due to the Kuril dispute. Gemba’s optimism that Moscow will change course on its Kurils policy may not be as naïve as it seems. Russia realizes that Asia is changing, and its neglected status as a Pacific power will need to be dusted off and refurbished. This can be done with or without Japan, but having Tokyo onside makes the transition easier and could result in a potential windfall of economic and security incentives. The time for a grand bargain on the Kurils could come sooner than most think.