Gorbachev on the Pacific Rim

April 19, 1991

The trade-off for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is excruciating: He craves Japanese investment of $2.5 billion or more to exploit gas and oil on Sakhalin island. He would like some $28 billion in aid that Japanese sources have suggested is available to develop Soviet East Asia.

If he could bring them home, such foreign gains might shore up his weak domestic support. And he knows that Japanese business hungers for the resources in the eastern sector of the Russian republic that is much closer to Tokyo than to Moscow. All he must do to gain these riches is give up four dinky Kuril islands that are no good to anyone and an expense to the Soviet Union. And give them away is what he dares not do.

To Japanese, these islands off their north island of Hokkaido are sacred parts of the homeland. They have been taught to care as deeply as Argentines do for the Falkland (Malvinas) islands lost to the British in the Eighteenth Century. The Soviet Union seized the four in the closing days of World War II in 1945 and, as a result, Japan is unwilling to conclude a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, and is unwilling to extend aid or investment guarantees in the absence of such a treaty.

Were he stronger at home, Mr. Gorbachev might have given the islands away on this precedent-shattering visit of a Soviet leader to Japan. But Russian nationalists would hammer him for the loss; Russian President Boris Yeltsin demands that his republic, rather than the Soviet Union, be asked for the islands, and all lTC Soviet citizens fear any reopening of the World War II territorial settlement in Europe, for which this might be precedent. Russians are taught to remember Japan's military humiliation of their country in the war of 1905.

In the circumstance, Mr. Gorbachev did well to concede as much as he did: reduction of Soviet troops on the islands and visa-less visits by Japanese citizens, as well as a promise to keep discussing the issue. This is not enough for Japan, but it might start to reshape Soviet thinking as a prelude to eventual sacrifice of the islands.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev, having narrowed the gap, is off to Seoul with an offer the South Koreans may find hard to reject. Not only is he giving legitimacy to South Korea at North Korea's expense, he will be offering South Korean business a chance to get in on the Soviet East Asian ground floor ahead of rivals from Japan. And if anything could make the Japanese more flexible on the aid-for-territory question, it would be that.

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