Kuril islands: strategic chain at heart of Russia-Japan dispute

Hundreds of Russians protest against a feared giveaway of strategic islands to Japan, two days before a key summit between the countries' leaders in Moscow. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2019
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Kuril islands: strategic chain at heart of Russia-Japan dispute

  • Soviet troops seized the Kuril Islands from Japan in the final days of World War II
  • The islands are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium

MOSCOW: Called the Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, a string of volcanic islands are at the heart of a feud between the two countries that has prevented them signing a formal World War II peace treaty.
Talks stalled for decades due to Japan’s claim to the four strategic islands seized by the Soviet army in the final days of the war.
Here are some key facts about the Kuril islands:

• The disputed islands of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan and Habomai lie at their closest point just a few kilometers (miles) off the north coast of Hokkaido in Japan.
They are the southernmost islands in a volcanic chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.
They are located to the southeast of the Russian island of Sakhalin and are administratively part of the same region, although Tokyo considers them part of its Hokkaido prefecture and “illegally occupied by Russia.”

• Russian Empress Catherine the Great claimed sovereignty over the Kuril islands in 1786 after her government declared they were discovered by “Russian explorers” and therefore “undoubtedly must belong to Russia.”
In the first treaty between tsarist Russia and Japan in 1855, the frontier between the two countries was drawn just north of the four islands closest to Japan.
Twenty years later in 1875, a new treaty handed Tokyo the entire chain, in exchange for Russia gaining full control of the island of Sakhalin.
Japan seized back control of the southern half of Sakhalin after its crushing defeat of Moscow in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

• The Kuril islands have been back at the center of a dispute between Moscow and Tokyo since Soviet troops invaded them in the final days of World War II.
The USSR only entered into war with Japan on August 9, 1945, just after the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The Soviet troops completed the takeover of the islands after Japan’s general surrendered later that month.


Russia argues that then US president Franklin Roosevelt promised Soviet leader Joseph Stalin he could take back the Kurils in exchange for joining the war against Japan when they met at the Yalta conference in February 1945 at which the Allied leaders divided up the post-war world.
The Soviet capture of the islands has since prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a formal peace treaty to end the war, despite repeated attempts over the past 70 years to reach an agreement.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev first offered to give Japan the two smallest islands, Shikotan and Habomai, in exchange for signing a peace treaty but dropped the idea after Tokyo struck a military alliance with the United States.

Rich in hot springs and rare metals
Strategically, control of the islands ensures Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok, as the strait between Kunashir and Iturup does not freeze over in winter.
Russia has military bases on the archipelago and has deployed missile systems on the islands.
The islands’ current population is around 20,000 people.
After numerous meetings over the past few years between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, they have launched various economic projects on the islands in areas such as the farming of fish and shellfish, wind-generated energy, and tourism, though Moscow says investment is still meagre.
Since 2017, the two countries have also agreed on charter flights for Japanese former inhabitants to visit family graves there.
The islands are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium, which is used in the production of supersonic aircraft.


Seoul on alert over possible Uzbek terrorists

Updated 12 min 56 sec ago
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Seoul on alert over possible Uzbek terrorists

  • South Korean diplomatic missions increases scrutiny of visa applicants
  • Uzbek nationals are not subject to visa exemptions in South Korea

SEOUL: South Korea is on high alert after a UN Security Council report warned hundreds of Uzbeks linked to terrorist networks could have entered the country.

The report on Daesh and Al-Qaeda stated members of the Katibat Imam Al-Bukhari and Katibat Al-Tawhid wal Jihad groups had requested entry to South Korea via Turkey. The militants chose the South due to the large Uzbek community already living there.

“Many ethnic Uzbeks request deportation from Turkey to the Republic of Korea, where the total number of Uzbeks is estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000,” the reports states. “Some Uzbek migrant workers in the Republic of Korea are reported to have been radicalized, and to be a source of financing for the travel of extremists to the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Seoul has asked South Korean diplomatic missions overseas to increase scrutiny of Uzbeks applying for South Korean visas.

“Upon receiving the UN report, we ordered the immigration office to tighten its screening of Uzbek travelers from Turkey,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement. 

“We also asked our embassy in Turkey and other diplomatic offices overseas to thoroughly examine the travel documents of Uzbek visa applicants while closely watching any unusual movements (regarding Uzbeks) here and abroad.”

Uzbek nationals are not subject to visa exemptions in South Korea, so they are required to apply at the South Korean Embassy in Uzbekistan. If they have permanent residence or long-term residency in another country, however, they can apply for a visa in a third country.

“We’ll limit issuing visas to Uzbek citizens confirmed to have visited banned countries, including Syria,” a ministry spokeswoman told Arab News. “In addition, we’ll try to block the entry of terror suspects while strengthening cooperation with foreign governments to stop any influx of terrorists to our nation.”

Terrorism is rare in South Korea, but fear and hatred toward terrorism prevail though the nation has a very small Muslim community of about 135,000, 0.3 percent of the population.

South Korea sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s at the request of the US. In 2004, a South Korean worker in Iraq was beheaded by militants who called for the withdrawal of South Korean troops from their country.

In 2007, 23 South Korean missionaries were abducted by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two of the hostages were executed before a deal was reached for their return.

In 2015, an Indonesian was arrested by Korean police for suspected links to a terrorist group. The 32-year-old was suspected to have links to Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In that same year, the National Intelligence Service revealed that 10 South Koreans had tried to contact Daesh.