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Koizumi to Renew Claim on Lost Isles

Japan's prime minister plans to take a boat tour of the islands that Russia seized after WWII.

August 28, 2004|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Stoking an old nationalist obsession, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that he would make a symbolic visit by coast guard boat next week to survey four islands off Japan's northeastern coast that were captured by Soviet troops in 1945 and remain in Russian possession.

Koizumi's move is aimed at reviving Japan's foundering territorial claim to the scruffy, sparsely populated islands before a visit here by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, expected in February. The dispute remains a burr in their diplomatic relationship and has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities.

Koizumi made his announcement Friday, the 59th anniversary of the day Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's soldiers invaded the islands -- even though Japan already had surrendered. The Soviets evicted the few thousand Japanese residents four years later.

Survivors and their descendants in Japan continue to argue for restitution of the archipelago, which Japan calls the Northern Territories but Russia calls the southern Kurils. The islands -- visible from Japan's northern coast -- are home to 14,000 Russians, most of whom live in fishing villages. The islands have little relative economic value to either country but carry symbolic weight for both.

Putin has shown little inclination to bargain the islands away. But Japanese officials have suggested that there is an opening for a deal because the Russian president's strong position at home offers him freedom to make a territorial concession.

Koizumi's visit will end a two-year period during which Japan shelved its diplomatic drumbeat for return of the islands, and focused instead on improving economic ties with Russia. The period has been marked by cordial relations and cooperation on energy development in Russia's Far East.

But Japanese critics complain that the approach gives Russia the benefits of a normalized relationship with no incentive to resolve the dispute.

"The Japanese side gave the wrong signal to Russia by deciding to improve economic relations first, and now the Foreign Ministry is thinking it made a mistake.... The Russians pretend to be interested but never take any action," said Masashi Nishihara, a member of Koizumi's foreign relations task force.

This month, the prime minister's office floated the idea of landing on the islands, something no postwar prime minister has done.

Alexander Losyukov, Russia's ambassador to Japan, responded that such a move would be "unproductive" for relations.

Koizumi's visit will be only a boat trip around the islands.

Yet the tour signals Koizumi's impatience to resolve the grievance as he enters what is expected to be the final two years of his mandate without any historic foreign policy achievement.

Japan had suggested a two-step process under which it would regain sovereignty over the two smallest islands while continuing to discuss the final status of the larger ones. Russia rejected that offer.

Discussions were then knocked off-course in 2002 by a scandal involving Muneo Suzuki, a maverick Japanese politician who was the leading advocate for return of the islands. Suzuki had been pressuring Japan's Foreign Ministry to strengthen ties to the islands by sending them economic development aid. But Suzuki was subsequently charged with corruption in the allocation of some of the funds.

The scandal discredited Japanese policy in the eyes of Russia. Koizumi's visit next week is aimed at ending that perception, observers said, even if the prospect of a deal remains remote.

"Because of the Suzuki scandal, Koizumi has had to start from the beginning to reconstruct the relationship with Putin on the issue," said Akio Watanabe, president of the independent Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. "The islands are a sacred issue that no Japanese politician can neglect."

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