Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.08.04

The Northern Territories and the Yalta Agreement

On June 5, 2011, at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Ivanov, stated that it can live without concluding a peace treaty with Japan. This assertion is tantamount to saying that the situation with the Northern Territories can remain status quo. The Japanese government reacted to this statement with the Deputy Foreign Minister, Yutaka Banno, criticizing it as regrettable, not constructive, and not consistent with the understanding of the two heads of state. Through a diplomatic channel, Japan also emphasized to Russia that it was important for the two countries to solve the territorial issue and to conclude a peace treaty according to the principles which have been upheld by the two countries.

The Northern Territories issue is the most difficult for Japanese diplomacy. Following the Ivanov statement, I would like to identify the differences in the positions taken by Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States regarding, in particular, the Yalta Agreement.

The Russian and Japanese positions became opposing since World War II. Before the war, the two countries had been able to agree despite the differences in their thinking. To wit; that Japanese have long been active on and actually controlled the Kunashiri and Etorofu islands; that these two islands belong to Japan and the islands north of Urup belong to Russia (1855 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation); that Japan and Russia exchanged their respective possession of the Kurile islands and Sakhalin, with the former belonging to Japan, while the latter belongs to Russia (1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg); that as a result of Russo-Japanese war, the southern part of Sakhalin reverted back to Japan (1905 Treaty of Portsmouth).

Presently, Russia asserts to Japan that the issue of the four islands of the Northern Territories must be solved in light of the results of the Second World War, as was the case at the meeting of the Japanese and Russian Foreign Ministers in 2009. In the early days after WW II, the Soviet Union used to claim that the issue should be solved according to the Yalta Agreement. Of the several international agreements concerning Japan from the beginning of the war until the conclusion of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, that Agreement is the only document that states clearly that the Kurile Islands will be handed over to Russia; therefore, from Russia's perspective, it is advantageous.

By contrast, the Japanese government has taken the position that the Yalta Agreement is not a treaty, rather, it is merely a statement of common goals by the heads of state of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, it is not legally binding with respect to the transfer of territories, the Soviet Union cannot enforce Japan's compliance with the Agreement because Japan was not a party to it, and Japan is only bound by the Potsdam Declaration and by the San Francisco Treaty, to which Japan agreed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs handbook, "Japan's Northern Territories," explains the Yalta Agreement in smaller typeset.

One could say that the Yalta Agreement is, in fact, egregious and is the source of most of the serious political problems that arose after the Second World War. In February 1945, the heads of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union met in Yalta for the purpose of discussing the restoration of order in post-war Europe; the Soviet Union promised to hold free elections in Eastern Europe and agreed to participate in the war against Japan on the condition that it would be given control of the Kuriles.

In reality, the Soviet Union did not allow free elections in Eastern Europe and it established Communist regimes there, all of which resulted in the Cold War. On the other hand the Soviet Union did participate in the war against Japan in accordance with the Yalta Agreement, thereby laying its claim to the U.S. that control of the Kuriles had to be handed over to the Soviet Union.

In response to this claim, the United States did not clearly state its position as to which country possesses the Kuriles, as the United States was of the view that the final settlement of territorial issues should be decided by the Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan. In the U.S., there was strong domestic criticism of the Soviet Union to the effect that it was only demanding that which was favorable to the Soviet Union, while ignoring itself important parts of the Yalta Agreement.

Soon after the conclusion of WWII the Cold War commenced, and this was reflected in Japan's peace treaty negotiations with the Allied Powers. As a result, the San Francisco Peace Treaty simply states that 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." This is based on the thinking that who will control the Kuriles will be decided at a later date.  Russia was not satisfied with this Peace Treaty and, therefore, did not sign it.

In theory, the Peace Treaty could have reflected the contents of the Yalta Agreement; however, by then, the post-War situation had already evolved, resulting in a departure from Yalta. The conclusion of the Peace Treaty, however, did not mean that it superseded the Yalta Agreement. So, in point of fact, the latter still continued to be effective between the United States and the Soviet Union, while the Peace Treaty coexisted without the participation of the Soviet Union.

The United States is a signatory to both the Yalta Agreement and the Peace Treaty. Therefore, in 1956, when Japan and the Soviet Union were negotiating a peace treaty, the United States arrived at a realistic interpretation of the Yalta Agreement that it was nothing more than a statement of common goals by the heads of the three states. It also asserted its view that both the Kunashiri and Etorofu islands should be recognized as Japanese territories. This suggests that not all of the Kurile Islands are to be handed over to the Soviet Union.  By adopting this interpretation and position regarding the Yalta Agreement, the United States indicated that no legal problem would arise if the Kurile Islands were not handed over to Russia even though it was stated without any limitation. The aforementioned statement of the Japanese government regarding its interpretation of the Yalta Agreement derives from this interpretation by the U.S.

To further complicate the matter is the issue of Russia's "occupation" of the Kurile Islands. This was part of a series of actions by the Allied Powers that had nothing to do with their legal possession of territories; however, the United States did indeed agree to the occupation by the Soviet forces of Kunashiri and Etorofu. (Cf. General Order Number One for the Surrender of Japan.)

From Russia's perspective, although the Yalta Agreement allowed the transfer of the Kuriles to the Soviet Union without conditions, the U.S. government's position changed thereafter to exclude Kunashiri and Etorofu from the transfer, even though the Soviet occupation was agreed, without limitation, as a part of the actions taken by the Allied Powers. This is putting aside the root of the causes that led to the changes in the attitude of the U.S., which arose from the post-War actions of the Soviet Union described above.

Now, Japan, which is not a party to the Yalta Agreement but a party to the Japan-Soviet Union Neutrality Treaty, can argue that Russia was not legally permitted to enter into the war against Japan. But Japan can say very little about the Russia's occupation because it was part of the actions of the Allied Powers to implement the Potsdam Declaration by which Japan is bound. That was a part of the reality that Japan had to accept. If Japan and Russia were to conclude a peace treaty today, countries including the U.S. would expect that the occupation would come to an end. To that extent, even though the issue of the occupation is regarded now as something for Japan and Russia to solve, the fact that occupation was initially undertaken as an action of the Allied Powers will not disappear. The Allied Powers cannot ignore this fact, even if some sixty-six years after the end of WW II have elapsed.

The Allied Powers cannot remain unaffected depending on the possible agreement on the peace treaty, in particular, by the islands to be handed over to the Russian Federation. If Japan were to provide advantages to Russia that are greater than those given to the other Allied Powers in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, then, from the perspective of the Treaty, other difficulty resembling the most-favoured-nation status could arise. This point has, in fact, been discussed previously and one cannot deny the possibility of its resurfacing.

All this means that, in order to address the issue of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia, more active participation from the U.S. is indispensable.

Of course, Japan cannot ignore political issues, let alone legal ones. This means that when interpretation of the Yalta Agreement is debated in resolving the Northern Territories issue, Japan should not refuse to be involved, saying legally that Japan has nothing to do with that agreement, but, instead, should try, from political viewpoint, to seek an appropriate resolution with the United States and the Russian Federation.

As for the Russian Federation, if it is to achieve its goal of resolving the Northern Territories issue "based on the results of WW II," it should negotiate not only with Japan but also with the United States.