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Southern Kuril Islands' handover to Japan would open Pandora’s box for Russia, expert says

Later, the question may go like this: "first we deal with the four Kuril Islands and then we will see if we talk about all Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin," Valery Kistanov of the RAS said

MOSCOW, January 10. /TASS/. If Russia handed over the southern Kuril Islands over to Japan, it would open a true Pandora’s box, as Japan’s claims will hardly come to a halt, Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Far Eastern Studies Valery Kistanov told TASS on Thursday.

"In theory, the Japanese can go very far. The Kuril Islands north of the four southern ones and the southern part of Sakhalin, also claimed by Japan, are not painted in Japanese colors on Japanese maps yet but they are not painted in Russian colors as well," he said. "Perhaps, in the future the question will go like this: ‘first we deal with the four Kuril Islands and then we will see if we talk about all Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin," the expert added.

According to Kistanov, there already are some forces in Japan that demand the return of all Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin. "These are far-right organizations and the Japanese Communist Party, which included the return of these territories in its program. That said, if only Russia hands two islands over to Japan, it will open Pandora’s box," the expert stressed.

Another option, in Kistanov’s words, is that after a peace treaty is signed and Habomai and Shikotan are handed over to Japan, Tokyo plans to get special rights in relation to Iturup and Kunashir in order to expand economic activities there. "The Japanese are making plans to sign a peace treaty, ensure the handover of two islands and then strike a deal to carry out economic activities on the two remaining islands together with Russia and also to provide Japanese nationals with free access to the islands. This option is also possible," the expert said.

At the same time, Kistanov pointed out that claims on the southern Kuril Islands were important for the Japanese public so Tokyo would hardly be able to limit its demands to the two islands mentioned in the 1956 declaration. "Experts, the media, some lawmakers and the public suspect that [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe may put paid to the matter upon receiving two islands but it is unlikely to happen because the basic position of the Japanese public includes four islands," he noted.

The expert also said that the public in Japan and Russia did not have full information, which gave rise to a wave of speculations concerning the Kuril Islands issue. "The lack of official statements about the so-called ‘northern territories’ raises doubts and suspicions in Japan that Abe may confine himself to the two islands mentioned in the Soviet-Japanese declaration of 1956," Kistanov said. "It runs counter to Japan’s official position, which says that the country demands the return of four islands," he added.

Peace treaty issue

Since the mid-20th century, Russia and Japan have been holding consultations in order to clinch a peace treaty as a follow-up to World War II. The Kuril Islands issue remains the sticking point since after WWII the islands were handed over to the Soviet Union while Japan laid claims to the four southern islands. In 1956, the two countries signed a common declaration on ending the state of war and restoring diplomatic and all other relations, however, a peace treaty has still not been reached. The Joint Declaration said that the Soviet government was ready to hand Shikotan Island and a group of small islands over to Japan, adding that Tokyo would get actual control of the islands after a peace treaty was signed.

However, after Japan and the United States had signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960, the Soviet Union withdrew its obligation to hand over the islands. A Soviet government’s memorandum dated January 27, 1960, said that those islands would only be handed over to Japan if all foreign troops were pulled out of the country.

On November 14, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Japanese prime minister held a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore and agreed that the two countries would speed up peace treaty talks based on the 1956 Joint Declaration.

Abe is expected to make a visit to Russia in the second half of January, while Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will visit Moscow on January 14.