Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday he would soon visit a disputed island chain off Japan, the focal point of a territorial row preventing signature of a post-World War II peace treaty.
Medvedev pointedly called the South Kurils “an important region of our country.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara warned that a presidential visit to the islands would “severely hurt ties,” the Kyodo News agency reported,
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, asked about the comments, recalled that Russia had been asked not to take such a step. He told a news conference he believed Medvedev was not referring to any specific travel plan.
Asked if Japan wanted Medvedev to stay away from the islands, he said: “To sum it up, that’s correct.”
Medvedev, speaking on the Kamchatka Peninsula north of the islands on his return from a three-day visit to China, said plans to visit the Kurils this week had been thwarted by bad weather.
He said the weather around the islands —which are often blighted by fog — was not suitable for flying at the moment.
“This is an important region of our country and we will certainly go there in the near future,” he told reporters.
The archipelago of some 56 islands cascades down from the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula toward Hokkaido, from which the southernmost island is only a few kilometers distant.
Japan claims the southernmost four islands — known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir — and calls them the Northern Territories. It does not contest Russia’s sovereignty over the northernmost islands, but has repeatedly demanded the return of the four, which were occupied by Soviet troops in the final days of World War II.
The row has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.
Russian and Japanese officials have repeatedly expressed -frustration that the dispute has prevented relations reaching their full potential, but summit meetings over the last years have failed to make any progress in the dispute.
Medvedev’s comments, his strongest on the dispute since coming to power on 2008, indicate that Russia is in no mood to give ground on the disputed territories.
According to the Web site of Russia’s Far East Sakhalin region, the southernmost islands have a population of 10,000 people with fishing one of the main local industries.