An undiplomatic diplomat

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An undiplomatic diplomat


The author is a Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“When I was a foreign minister, I had a good partner, Minister Kang Kyung-wha. We wanted to improve relations between Korea and Japan, but the ruling on forced labor was regrettable.”

Former Japanese foreign minister and current defense minister Taro Kono says this frequently. While it sounds like an unrealistic and naive excuse, the “eccentric” Japanese politician mentions it in every interview. He praises himself and Minister Kang and blames the ruling on forced labor for aggravating relations. In fact, the two had a lot in common. I heard that they are both fluent in English, and while they had stern faces in front of the camera, their faces brightened once meetings started.

But when it comes to Korea-Japan relations, the two ministers are failed generals. In the last two years that I worked as a Tokyo correspondent, I’ve not seen them working actively. At critical moments, they were often absent from the stage. Kono said he did not know which items the Japanese economic ministry would target for export regulation. A high-level Japanese government source told the JoongAng Ilbo that the Foreign Ministry knew about the export ban but did not know which specific items were due to the impact on the stock market. It means that the Foreign Ministry did not know the core parts in the semiconductor industry supporting the Korean economy were targeted.

When the export ban led to a diplomatic battle between Korea and Japan toward the United States, Minister Kang made a trip to Africa to my disbelief. It was similar when Gsomia was not extended. According to Japanese media, Kono had a meeting with Kang in Beijing the day before the decision was made, and Kono told those around him that he felt Gsomia would be okay. There was a report that Kang texted Kono the next evening that the decision not to extend Gsomia would be announced.

The two ministers had encouraged discord between the two countries. In a meeting in February, Kono claimed that he demanded an apology and retraction of National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s remark on the Japanese emperor’s apology, and Minister Kang said that there was no such discussion. So the discrepancy led to confusion. Rather than having a diplomatic negotiation, they exposed issues in basic elementary school-level communication. Kono was harshly criticized even within the Japanese government for summoning Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo and making rude remarks.

While he should be ashamed and keeping a low profile, it is hard for me to accept him mentioning “a good partner.” That’s why many people welcome new Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who has a worse personality but is competent.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 27, Page 28
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