TOKYO (AP) — Japan's new foreign minister is a reputed renegade, famous for bashing his ruling party's policies with stands against nuclear power and for stricter checks on foreign aid.
Taro Kono, appointed earlier this month, said he won't abandon his pet issues, but will make sure to send a united message when representing his country to the outside world.
In comments to reporters Tuesday at the Foreign Ministry, Kono was the mark of diplomacy when referring to Japan's relations with the U.S., its most important ally.
He said he saw no divisions or confusion in the administration of President Donald Trump in his recent talks with officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty.
"Things have never been easier," he said. "We can have solid talks."
When asked about how some observers found Washington divided and confusing, Kono acknowledged that some changes were inevitable simply because Trump is a Republican, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama.
But he said the basics of Japan's relationship with the U.S. have remained the same, and such solidarity was important given the crisis over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Kono, who has always tended to take a tough stand on North Korea, said continued pressure, not dialogue, is what is needed now to get it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Rhetoric between Washington and North Korea has heated up since the North's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month. Some Japanese worry that regional tensions may escalate and that North Korean missiles may fly over Japan because of the North's threat to launch missiles into waters near Guam.
Kono accused North Korea of using talks in the past to buy time, and said "loopholes" in recent U.N. sanctions on the North need to be dealt with instead, because ample money was continuing to flow into North Korea for its missile and nuclear programs.
"When North Korea clearly shows its willingness to give up nuclear weapons and takes such action, that is when we start talks," Kono said. "It is time for continued pressure until North Korea shows a clear will and acts in that way."
On South Korea, Kono said a 2015 agreement on World War II Japanese military sex slaves, known as "comfort women," had settled the issue and ruled out any further review, reiterating the official government stance.
The selection of Kono along with other popular legislators for the Cabinet, announced Aug. 3, was widely seen as an effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to curry favor with the public after a series of scandals badly dented his approval ratings.
Kono, 54, is unusual for a Japanese politician, having graduated from Georgetown University in the United States and worked in Washington for Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, then a congressman. He is fluent in English and more casual in his personal mannerisms in a Japanese political world often criticized as insular and lacking in diversity.
Still, Kono is a political blue blood whose father, Yohei Kono, served as foreign minister and government spokesman and oversaw an official 1993 statement on the comfort women, one of Japan's most divisive issues with South Korea. His grandfather, Ichiro Kono, was a prominent figure in post-World War II Japanese politics, working in several ministerial posts and leading the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The younger Kono, an avid soccer fan, scuba diver and theater goer, said he has always seen himself as a different person from his father and grandfather.
Now that he is meeting officials from other nations as foreign minister, he says some remember them, and that is an asset he doesn't mind inheriting.
"If that works as a plus for me, then I'm going to take it," he said with a laugh.
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