National / Politics

New foreign minister wants to be own man, sees no need to renegotiate 2015 'comfort women' agreement

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Friday sought to differentiate himself from his more famous father, who is known for issuing the Kono statement — the government’s historic 1993 apology to the mostly Asian “comfort women” coerced into providing sex for the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II.

“I am completely different from my father in terms of personality and ways of thinking,” Kono said at a ceremony commemorating the beginning of his duties at the ministry.

“I will put my heart and soul into improving Japan’s national interests,” he added.

Kono was assigned the portfolio Thursday when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled the Cabinet. But his comments may not be well-received in South Korea.

On Thursday, Kono upheld Tokyo’s position on the landmark 2015 agreement to settle the comfort women issue with Seoul, saying it “should be carried out steadily,” effectively forestalling calls for its renegotiation.

As news of Kono’s appointment reverberated, hopes had emerged in South Korean media that Abe’s choice could mark a “turning point,” as the Japanese edition of the daily Chosun Ilbo put it, in relations for two Asian democracies bedeviled by bad blood over the comfort women issue.

When asked what he thought about the “positive” initial response in China and South Korea to news of his appointment, Kono, in his first regular news conference Friday before the ceremony, stressed how different he was from his father, Yohei Kono.

“If they are happy because the son of Yohei Kono has been appointed as foreign minister, I should probably thank my father,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to build a good international reputation by being myself, or Foreign Minister Taro Kono.”

Abe himself went out of his way to emphasize on Thursday that Kono is “completely in line” with the government’s position on historical issues.

The bilateral accord in 2015 was intended to resolve the long-simmering diplomatic row “finally and irreversibly,” but the new administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has expressed a desire to rethink it.

Kono’s proclaimed support for the agreement threw “cold water on hopes of improved relations between the neighboring countries,” Yonhap news agency said Thursday.

At Friday’s news conference, Kono mostly hewed to the government line, voicing hopes he will engage in “future-oriented” dialogue with Beijing and Seoul — signaling he thinks the controversies linked to Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula should not be dredged up again.

Kono, however, added that he wants to “deepen friendship” with Japan’s neighbors and expects to meet his South Korean and Chinese counterparts in bilateral settings on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings slated to kick off in Manila on Sunday.

Regarding North Korea’s ongoing military provocations, Kono backed the government’s position that “pressure” is the best antidote for now.

Kono declined to elaborate on whether he intends to approach North Korean officials at the ASEAN Regional Forum, a major security meeting involving 27 countries.