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FM Kono refuses to answer questions over Northern Territories negotiations

Foreign Minister Taro Kono speaks during a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee session on Dec. 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Foreign Minister Taro Kono repeatedly refused to answer reporters' questions at a news conference on Dec. 11 over Japan's position for talks with Russia over the bilateral territorial dispute, raising questions as to whether he has fulfilled his accountability.

On four occasions, Kono declined to answer questions at the news conference and said, "Please ask me the next question." Kono had already come under fire from opposition parties for repeatedly refusing to answer questions over the issue during the extraordinary Diet session that ended on Dec. 10, saying, "I refrain from answering your question."

The foreign minister apparently tried not to reveal the Japanese government's strategy for its negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido that are ruled by Moscow, and also showed some consideration to Russia. However, his refusal to provide explanations to the general public has stirred criticism.

The Kasumi Club, a press club of reporters covering the Foreign Ministry, urged Kono to sincerely respond to questions from journalists. "Questions have been raised over whether you have fulfilled your accountability to the general public. We would like you to sincerely respond to news conferences," a statement addressed to Kono said.

During the Dec. 11 news conference, a reporter asked Foreign Minister Kono how he interprets a statement that his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov made to justify Moscow's rule of the four islands that make up the Northern Territories -- Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets.

However, Kono refused to answer the question and instead asked the press corps to ask him the next question.

The foreign minister responded similarly on three occasions to questions as to whether he had no intention of publicly making statements on the matter.

The now-defunct Soviet Union occupied the Northern Territories in 1945 shortly after the end of World War II. The territorial dispute over the islands has been a stumbling block to the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. The Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, which states that Moscow would return two of the four islands -- Shikotan and Habomai -- to Japan after concluding a peace treaty with the country is the basis for the bilateral territorial negotiations.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, criticized Kono over his reluctance to provide an explanation of policies.

"Someone who previously attached more importance to information disclosure than anyone else has become extremely reluctant to provide explanations after becoming a Cabinet minister," Tsujimoto said. "He lacks a balance between the need to withhold the content of negotiations and information disclosure to the public."

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuda, Political News Department)

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