Vladimir Putin inspects military exercises in the Pacific Ocean near Sakhalin island on July 16, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ria-Novosti/Alexei Nikolsky
Vladimir Putin inspects military exercises in the Pacific Ocean near Sakhalin island on July 16, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ria-Novosti/Alexei Nikolsky

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcast to his people that the Japanese Empire had accepted the demands of the Allied Powers to end the war.

Yet 73 years later, events from the last, few dramatic weeks of World War II still reverberate in Northeast Asia, and remain a bone of contention between Japan and Russia.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has engaged in negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin over four small islands just north of Hokkaido, the northern most of Japan’s four main islands. The four, at the southern end of the Kurile Island chain but referred to as the Northern Territories by Japan, were lost to Moscow after Tokyo’s defeat in World War II.

However, those islands were not the only gains for the Soviets as the war came to a dramatic close. Nor were they the most significant.

Russia in the North, US in the South

Moscow came away with the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula, then a Japanese colony. Korea was arbitrarily divided at the 38th parallel in a hasty decision by two American field-grade officers who gave away 55% of the peninsula to the Soviets who had been engaged in the Asian Theater for only one week. This came about for two reasons.

One was the speed at which the war came to a cataclysmic conclusion. Not yet knowing whether the American atomic bomb would be successful, US President Franklin Roosevelt at the February 1945 Yalta Conference extracted a promise from Soviet Premier Josef Stalin to join the war against Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany.

Stalin agreed, knowing that by doing so, he would exact vengeance on Tokyo for the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War – and probably gain some territory as well. Some historians claim it was the Soviets declaring war against Japan that caused Tokyo to surrender. That certainly was a concern for the Japanese military, but in Hirohito’s announcement of capitulation to his people on August 15, 1945, the Soviets were not mentioned, while the American atomic bomb was.

The second reason the US so readily conceded much of the Korean Peninsula to the Soviets was due to an embarrassing lack of intelligence on just how far Moscow’s forces had progressed in Asia. There is not a of wealth of information in the West on this, but the 1983 book America’s Parallel by Michael C. Sandusky documents that the Soviets met notable Japanese resistance at Chongjin, in the northeastern corner of Korea, bottling up Stalin’s forces in the very last days of the war.

Moreover, American General Douglas MacArthur demanded nearly all Allied soldiers be dedicated to the occupation of Japan. As a result, no American forces arrived in the southern portion of Korea until  September 8, more than three weeks after Japan’s surrender.

Once again, knowledge of history is useful. Just before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Moscow had demanded Tokyo cede the Korean Peninsula above the 39th parallel as a neutral zone. Having specified that demarcation established a precedent, and Stalin would likely have accepted much less territory from the Americans in 1945.

As it turned out, Moscow was pleased to get access to the year-round ice-free Korean port of Rajin in the Northeast, a great improvement over the Soviet Union’s own Vladivostok, which is ice-free only in summers. In an ironic echo of history, Rajin is now part of a special economic zone, boasting both Russian and Chinese investment in the port’s wharves.

More broadly, the multiple problems stemming from the existence of two states on the Korean peninsula continues to trouble both the region and the world.

Japan loses old territory

Stalin was also pleased to get back the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the remaining Kurile Islands as the spoils of this war. As for those so-called Northern Territories that Japan now wants returned, the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco formally ending World War II covered the Kuriles quite specifically in Article 2(c):

 Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands, and to that portion of Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it over which Japan acquired sovereignty as a consequence of the Treaty of Portsmouth of 5 September 1905.

Russia claims that statement includes all of the Kurile Islands; Japan insists that its Northern Territories were not part of the agreement. But there is history behind Japan’s position.

The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda established that those four islands belonged to Japan. And the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg gave Japan the Kurile Islands – presumably including the four in question today – in exchange for its claim to Sakhalin Island. Japan’s possession of the Kuriles was reaffirmed by the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth.

However, the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco supersedes all previous ones: the four islands no longer belong to Japan. As World War II ended, the Soviet Union moved quickly to occupy those four southern Kurile Islands. Moscow has controlled them ever since.

Given the historical enmity between the two countries – and give the powerful nationalism and militarism that underlies Vladimir Putin’s Russia – it is highly doubtful that Moscow will ever relinquish them to Tokyo. Abe’s attempt to negotiate the “Northern Territories” back is destined to fail.

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