Medvedev stokes Japan ire with visit to disputed isles

1st November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stoked Japan's ire on Monday with a visit to the Kuril islands, a remote north Pacific territory at the heart of a decades-long dispute with Tokyo.

Japan summoned Russia's ambassador to Tokyo after Medvedev flew into the island of Kunashir, on the first visit by a Russian leader to the isles which have prevented a post-World War II peace treaty between the two neighbours.

Japanese Foreign Minister Maehara said the visit "hurts Japanese public sentiment and is extremely regrettable," and later Jiji Press reported that he called in Russian ambassador Mikhail Bely.

"I told him that it is Russia's domestic issue. I requested Japan to deal with it cool-headedly and in a balanced manner," Bely told reporters after meeting, according to Jiji.

The Kuril Islands, which lie north of Japan's Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, but Tokyo claims the southernmost four as Japanese territory.

"As Japan has kept its position that the four northern islands belong to Japanese territory, the president's visit there is very regrettable," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told parliament.

The trip comes ahead of Medvedev's visit to Japan for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this month and analysts said it was a deliberate signal to Tokyo that Moscow is not willing to give up the islands.

During his almost four-hour visit, he snapped pictures during a trip to a pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and also inspected sites such as a geothermal energy station, a fish processing plant and a kindergarten.

In September, Medvedev called the islands "a very important region of our country" and announced plans to visit, prompting a warning from Japan that it could lead to worsening ties.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said on Saturday that the visit to the islands -- which are home to about 19,000 people -- should not affect relations.

"The president plans his domestic movements across our country independently," he said, adding that he did not see "any connection" to relations between Moscow and Tokyo.

The row has however prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, impeding the development of ties to their full potential.

The four islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir and in Japanese as Etorofu, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashiri -- are part of a volcanic archipelago that stretches about 1,300 kilometres (800 miles).

The islands are home to about 19,000 people, contain metal deposits such gold and silver and boast an abundance of marine life.

Japan has baulked at suggestions that Russia could hand over two of the islands or that the nations could develop them jointly, insisting on the return of all four.

In 1956, the Soviet Union signed a declaration offering to give back the two smallest islands but talks never progressed. Under president Boris Yeltsin, Russia raised the plan again to a furious reaction from nationalists and Communists.

President Vladimir Putin from 2004 several times raised the theoretical possibility that Russia could hand over two of the four island to Japan.

After Medvedev was elected in 2008, Japan hailed him for showing a "strong desire to solve this problem," but no breakthroughs have emerged.

In October 2009, Maehara, then Japan's land minister, reiterated that the islands had been seized in an "illegal occupation", provoking an angry response from Moscow.

Earlier that year, Japan's parliament passed a law calling the Kurils "an integral part" of the country and saying it would "make the utmost efforts to realise the early return of the islands".

The Russian foreign ministry responded by calling the law "unacceptable."

Top Russian officials including Lavrov have visited the islands.

In 2005 the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Russia to return the islands, which it called the Northern territories, to Japan.

© 2010 AFP

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