The following is the translation of a section of Bungeishuju’s interview with Minister of Defense Taro Kono, which appeared in the edition of November 2019.
Q: It is hard to comprehend the handling of Japan-ROK relations by the government of Moon Jae-in, but were you communicating well with your South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha [when you were minister of foreign affairs]?
Kono: We had built such a relationship that we could communicate with each other via cellphone. I had told her that “the Japan-ROK basic treaty and the agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims, which the two countries signed in 1965, form the legal bedrock of the Japan-ROK relationship and this cannot be overturned.” I believe that the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs also acknowledged this point. But the Supreme Court of South Korea handed down a ruling [in favor of former requisitioned workers seeking compensation from Japanese firms]. I cannot disclose the details of my discussions with Minister Kang, but even after that ruling, we continued our dialogue on a number of occasions. We shared the same passion to seek a solution based on what our bilateral relationship has achieved, such as the 1965 accord and the 1998 joint declaration issued by then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
Q: You were holding talks with Minister Kang immediately before South Korea’s announcement of termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, weren’t you?
Kono: I discussed with her GSOMIA when we met in Beijing for our trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with China. While tensions were escalating over the North Korean issue, the South Korean government, particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense, held the view that “GSOMIA is a different matter.” But soon after she returned home, the government of Moon Jae-in announced the termination of GSOMIA. This highlighted that the Blue House had a different stance [from the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].
Then the situation got complicated over the export control issue. There arose in South Korea the opinion that Japan’s removal of the ROK from its white list, which is now called Category A, and inclusion in Category B was inexcusable.
When South Korea Minister Kang brought up this subject at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Singaporean minister of foreign affairs took out his smartphone for a quick check and said with surprise, “Singapore is not in Category A and not one of the ASEAN nations is either.” Then I asked the ASEAN foreign ministers there, “Are any of you facing a trade problem with Japan because of that?” All of them answered, “No, we have no problems trading with Japan.” Then the Singaporean minister of foreign affairs jokingly said in an attempt to mediate, “How about listing all of us in Category A if South Korea is removed from Category A and joins ASEAN?” Everyone burst into laughter.
The removal of South Korea from Category A creates more paperwork for Japanese exporters, whereas it does not create any extra work for South Korean importers. But very few people who engage in decision-making in South Korea were aware of this. I honesty felt we were in trouble as the export control issue became conflated with the issues of the settlement of claims and GSOMIA in an awkward way.
Q: Would it be better to leave this unaddressed for the time being?
Kono: The Japanese and South Korean politicians put aside their differences of opinion to forge common ground in realizing the 1965 accord on the settlement of claims. Changing this would be equivalent to rewriting history. This must not happen. South Korea’s past governments have acknowledged and managed this. The Moon administration also needs to demonstrate the political courage to deal with this. (Abridged)