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Editorial: Deepen discussions for Northern Territories negotiations

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Nov. 14 to expedite negotiations for a peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Communique. Will this spur progress in the Northern Territories negotiations? 


The joint communique stipulated that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan would be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty. This is the only legally binding document ratified by the Japanese Diet and the Soviet parliament at that time. Putin also recognizes its validity.


It will be a positive development if the impasse over the territorial issue of more than 70 years after World War II indeed moves forward as a result of this agreement to use the joint communique as the basis of negotiations.


However, our concern is that only two islands will be returned and the issue of sovereignty over the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu may be shelved. The government’s position is that all four islands are an integral part of Japan’s territory and they are being occupied illegally by Russia.


The Prime Minister’s intent is unclear. However, he will meet with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina this year and visit Russia in early 2019. His determination to accelerate negotiations and seek an early solution is evident.


For this very reason, further in-depth discussions on the various issues that emerged in the latest talks are necessary.


There are currently about 3,000 Russian residents on the two islands and a total of some 17,000 Russians living on the four islands. The Japanese people need to understand many issues, such as fishing rights in the adjacent waters, the distribution of resources, and whether to allow the stationing of U.S. Forces. There is also the question of sharing the cost of the islands’ return.


Prospects are not rosy for the negotiations. Putin is suffering from a low support rating due to domestic political issues. While he indeed holds great power, he has a tendency to opt for a hardline stance in foreign affairs based on public opinion. It is also widely accepted in Russia that the four islands were legitimately acquired as a result of World War II.


Abe probably wants to resolve this issue before his term as Liberal Democratic Party president ends in September 2021. However, this must not be taken advantage of as a weakness in the negotiations. It will also be necessary to offer an explanation to the people, including the former islanders, eventually. (Slightly abridged)

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