Japan takes tougher line in territorial dispute with Russia

The Japanese government has announced a new "course of measures" vis-a-vis Russia in an effort to speed up the process of regaining the possession of four southernmost Kuril islands. The islands were claimed by the Soviet Union after WWII.

As the Asahi newspaper reported Sunday, the Japanese government will now be pushing for the return of all the four islands simultaneously. Once an agreement on their return is in place, Japan will at long last be able to sign a WWII peace treaty with Russia, the Asahi says.

After the latest elections to the upper house of Parliament, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi instructed the Foreign Ministry to make the return of the disputed territories one of its top priorities, alongside the normalization of relations with North Korea. If all goes well, a peace treaty with Russia may be signed as early as the first half of next year, officials in Tokyo say.

According to a source in the Japanese Cabinet of Ministers, Japan will no longer rely on provisions of the 1993 Tokyo Declaration as it negotiates the return of the disputed Kuril islands (this declaration provides for step-by-step transfer of them). Instead, it will be pressing Russia into returning all the four islands at a time, the sources said.

In the past few years, economic issues have come to the foreground of Russo-Japanese relations, pushing the territorial dispute to the background.

During Premier Koizumi's visit to Russia last January, the sides signed a Plan of Joint Actions, which lists areas of political and economic cooperation, but makes no mention of the disputed islands.

This may have made Russia think that Japan had decided to put the contentious issue on the backburner, yet nothing can be further from the truth, the Cabinet source was quoted by Asahi as saying.

Japanese negotiators will try to make Russia recognize Japan's sovereignty over the Northern Territories before the end of next year, which marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

What the Russian reaction to Japan's tougher line will be like yet remains to be seen, the Asahi notes in conclusion.

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