- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

TOKYO | Russia’s president visited an island in the Pacific Ocean claimed by both Russia and Japan on Monday, triggering immediate protests from Tokyo, which already is involved in a heated dispute with China over islands to the south.

President Dmitry Medvedev landed on Kunashiri Island, just off Japan’s northern coast. Known in Russia as Kunashir, it is part of a group of four islands claimed by both countries that Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the southern Kurils.

Mr. Medvedev is the first Russian president to visit the island.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement soon after Mr. Medvedev’s arrival that it opposed the visit and would take appropriate measures. It called in Russia’s ambassador in Tokyo to protest.

“We have never changed our position that the Northern Territories are a part of our territory and the visit is very regrettable,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a session of parliament on Monday.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev walks the land of what his country calls the southern Kurils and Japan calls the Northern Territories. He promised to improve the standard of living there. (RIA Novosti Kremlin via Associated Press)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev walks the land of what his country calls ... more >

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Tokyo’s reaction to Mr. Medvedev’s visit to the island “unacceptable” and said he would call in Japan’s ambassador to Russia, Masaharu Kono, to protest.

“This is our land, and the Russian president was visiting Russian land, Russian territories, a Russian region. We said so to our Japanese partners,” Mr. Lavrov told a news conference.

“We are not going to take any steps that could hamper Russian-Japanese relations, but Japan must draw conclusions from this, and demarches like this are not acceptable,” he said.

Part of a larger chain of Russian-held islands, the disputed islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are thought to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits.

The islands — which have been under Russian control since the waning days of World War II — have suffered neglect, and the population has plummeted since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Commenting on general living standards in a meeting with local officials, Mr. Medvedev said: “We are beginning to improve the situation. New housing is being built. Social facilities are appearing. This is good because this is raising living standards. To a certain extent this allows people to hope that in a reasonable period of time their lives will be similar to those on the mainland: modern and successful.”