Taro Kono was appointed defense minister in the Sept. 11 cabinet reshuffle. He granted an interview to the Nikkei and other media on Sept. 18, and we asked him how he will handle the tense situation in the Middle East as well as ties with Japan’s neighbors, including the deteriorating Japan-South Korea relationship.
Collaborate with South Korea in handling North Korea
Nikkei: South Korea has decided to abrogate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. How will you deal with South Korea?
Defense Minister Kono: During my tenure as foreign minister, I was working with South Korea Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to arrange a variety projects to mark the 20th anniversary of the Japan-South Korea Partnership Declaration, which was concluded between former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and former President Kim Dae-jung. The aim was to raise the Japan-South Korea relationship to a new level. Just as we were about to launch that, the rulings on the former requisitioned workers came. I thought it very unfortunate.
I would like to meet with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo as well at an appropriate time. We have some difficult intergovernmental issues, but Japan-South Korea collaboration is of course critical in relation to the North Korea situation. I would like to move forward through our communicating thoroughly with each other.
Nikkei: China is posing an increasing military threat.
DM Kono: The Soviet economy was isolated during the Cold War era. Now most Asian nations do more trade with China than the United States. How to handle matters in this context is a difficult question. I will discuss the issues with the United States and other countries with which we share common values.
Nikkei: The U.S. is moving forward with an embargo on Huawei products.
DM Kono: The Defense Ministry cannot singlehandedly address cyber or electromagnetic wave issues. Going forward, there will be more and more fields where the entire government must join hands and work together as one.
Nikkei: What are your views on the role Japan should play in the Middle East and how do you plan to handle the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to the Strait of Hormuz?
DM Kono: Japan has quite a large role to play in the easing of tensions in the Middle East. We can discuss various issues with the United States, and Japan is trusted by Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. Japan has a major role to play as a bridge in various exchanges. Regarding the dispatch of the SDF, nothing has been decided in particular at this point.
Nikkei: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly.
DM Kono: These meetings will be discussions at the summit level of matters that have been coordinated between the foreign ministers so far. The upcoming UN General Assembly may be a major step toward easing tensions.
Nikkei: Some are criticizing the defense budget request because it is the largest ever.
DM Kono: The security environment is very harsh. Japan’s fiscal situation is limited, though, so we must manage within certain limits. We have to flexibly allocate resources without being restricted by existing frameworks.
Nikkei: With your lateral move to the defense minister position, you are in the spotlight as a possible successor to Abe.
DM Kono: The defense minister is tasked with protecting the peaceful lives of the people as well as Japan’s territory, seas, and skies. It is critical that I perform this role fully and this is unrelated to the post-Abe era. I think every minister has (the aim of being prime minister).