National / Politics

New defense chief Onodera vows to restore trust, review strategy in face of North Korea threat

Kyodo

New Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera vowed Thursday to restore public trust in his ministry following a data coverup scandal and said one of his main tasks is to review Japan’s defense program guidelines last made in 2013 amid the growing North Korean missile threat.

“We will make sure the same problem will not happen again and make utmost efforts to revive public confidence,” Onodera said at a press conference after he assumed the ministerial post, referring to the scandal that has thrown the Defense Ministry into disarray and led his predecessor, Tomomi Inada, to resign last week.

“The importance of information disclosure was not sufficiently recognized (inside the organization). … I will make efforts so that the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces can work as one to deal with any kind of situation,” he said.

Serving in the defense minister’s post for the second time, the 57-year-old lawmaker also said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told him to “re-examine” the 2013 defense guidelines that have set the target of defense capabilities Japan should achieve over the next decade.

The move comes as tensions run high in the region over North Korea’s missile launches, with the reclusive country test-firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July in an apparent bid to develop the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead.

Onodera said there is no specific timeline for the re-examination, but he would check whether the current defense program guidelines are enough to counter what he called the “striking improvement” in North Korea’s missile technology in recent years.

As a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Onodera led efforts to draw up a sensitive proposal in March that would pave the way for the government to consider acquiring the ability to strike foreign bases to defend Japan against the North Korean threat.

But he was unclear whether he will immediately pursue the proposal as defense chief, saying he would like to first hear from ministry officials on how they have studied the matter so far and consider what is most necessary for Japan’s missile defenses.

The government maintains the position that having such an ability is possible under the war-renouncing Constitution if it can be considered a measure of self-defense. But Japan has so far opted to not equip its defense forces with cruise missiles and other armaments capable of attacking another country, leaving the role up to its key ally, the United States.

As part of efforts to strengthen the security alliance with the United States, Onodera said he is eager to hold the security talks involving the two countries’ foreign and defense chiefs “as early as possible,” without elaborating.

On the continuing wrangling between the central and local governments over a plan to move the operations of a U.S. air base within Okinawa, Onodera said it is “desirable” that the two sides cooperate on the issue.

But he maintained the central government’s position that the current plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s operations within Okinawa is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Former Defense Minister Inada resigned July 29 following a one-year stint marred by gaffes and missteps. The ministry’s coverup of the data of the logs kept by Japan’s ground troops during their U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan proved the impetus for her departure.

The logs stirred controversy as they described especially tense situations that Ground Self-Defense Force members found themselves in during the U.N. mission in the fledgling African country last year. The involvement of troops in conflict situations overseas is a sensitive issue in Japan due to the pacifist Constitution.

The coverup scandal broke earlier this year and deepened as leaks to the media alleged Inada had a role in the coverup. Inada denied the allegations but still faced questions about her loss of control over the SDF.

GSDF Chief of Staff Toshiya Okabe, who will stand down next Tuesday, apologized over the scandal in a regular press conference Thursday. Okabe reaffirmed the findings of an internal probe that the GSDF had inappropriately responded to information disclosure requests for the peacekeepers’ daily activity logs.

Okabe expressed the opinion that Onodera is a person who tries to “listen to the voices of people in the field” and said he expects the new defense chief to give “precise instructions” in the increasingly difficult security environment.