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The Kuril and Sakhalin Island Controversy

Dateline: 02/14/00

Japan surrendered at the end of World War II on Aug. 14, 1945. However, in the over 54 years since the end of the war, Japan and Russia have still not signed a peace treaty ending the conflict between the two countries.

The reason? A handful of small islands off the northern coast of Japan's Hokkaido island, which are part of the Kuril Island chain (known as the Northern Territories in Japan).

Last week, during a four-day visit to Japan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, and the two pledged that a peace treaty between their countries would be enacted by the end of 2000.

The dispute between the two countries rests over the control of the three southernmost Kuril islands, which were taken over by the Soviet Union in 1945. Japan claims that these islands are part of Japan, as they have always been visible with the naked eye from the Japanese island of Hokkaido and appear on centuries-old maps of Japan as being part of Japan.

Kuril Islands
Additional controversy has existed over the status of Sakhalin Island, a large island northwest of Hokkaido (approximately 589 miles or 948 km long). It has been settled by Russians and Japanese for centuries but in 1875 Japan and Russia agreed that Japan would give Sakhalin Island to Russia in exchange for 18 (of a total of 56) Kuril Islands.

Then, following the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, Japan regained control of Sakhalin Island south of 50° latitude. Japan then took control of the entire island following the Russian Revolution of 1917 but abandoned control of the island in 1924. Finally, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took control of the entire island, along with the Kurils and forced the Japanese population out.

Following World War II, the San Francisco Peace Conference was held and Japan agreed to give up any claim on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands north of the four closest to Japan - Shikotan, Etorofu, Kunashiri and the tiny Habomai island group. At the time, Japan also agreed to give up control of Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea islands, Penghu and its Antarctic territory.

The Soviet Union refused to agree to such terms and did not sign the peace treaty. Since that time, the Soviet Union has become Russia, which has agreed to re-examine the issue of the Kurils.

Russia has indicated that they'll agree to give Shikotan and Habomai group back to Japan but still wish to retain Etorofu and Kunashiri. It will be interesting in the coming months as Japan and Russia work to resolve their decades-old conflict and finally and officially end World War II for their countries.

Both the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island are tectonically and volcanically active. A large earthquake in 1995 killed approximately 2,000 people on Sakhalin (total island population is about 680,000). The Kurils are home to about 35 active volcanoes. Fishing is the primary occupation in the region.

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