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Secretary Esper and Minister Kono Press Conference

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well good afternoon, everyone.  Minister Kono, it is a pleasure to host you today as we honor the strong defense relationship between the United States and Japan.  This Sunday, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.

The agreement formalized our commitment to addressing shared security concerns on the basis of freedom and democracy.  Since then, we have united to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to uphold a rules-based international order.

I'd like to thank the Minister for Japan's decision to — to — to deploy its Self-Defense Force assets to the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.  In advancing our maritime security objectives, we will continue to share information and cooperate on operations in the Middle East as we work to promote freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce.

Another American priority is the complete denuclearization of North Korea.  The relationship among the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea remains vital to addressing this challenge, and we will continue trilateral defense exercises and information sharing to bolster regional security and achieve that objective.

Additionally, as I told the minister, the United States seeks to balance constructive engagement with China with the protection of U.S. interests.  We continue to counter China's destabilizing behavior in the region, especially in the South and East China Seas, and we remain opposed to unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of the Senkaku Islands.

The minister and I also discussed our progress in the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.  We are grateful to Japan for ensuring our access to training ranges and airspaces, which help us maintain readiness, enhance regional security and stability, and deliver a strong deterrent message to China and North Korea.

I'd also like to thank Japan for its leadership in advancing information security.  We must maintain the momentum of last year's 2+2 meeting as we shore up potential vulnerabilities and expand our cooperation in areas such as space and cyber.

In closing, our alliance has experienced a remarkable evolution over the past 60 years and our strong bilateral relationship will continue to be critical to our collective security and regional stability.  I look forward to deepening that partnership and working with you, Mr. Minister, in the future.  I think this was our third or fourth meeting together.  So I thank you for your great cooperation and your friendship.  Thank you.

MINISTER KONO TARO:  Thank you.  Well, it's an honor to be here as Defense Minister.  This is my first visit to Pentagon as a Defense Minister.  This year marks 60th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.  I'm grateful that I had opportunity to visit Washington D.C. as Japanese Defense Minister and hold a discussion with Secretary Esper on how to make our alliance even stronger at the beginning of this milestone year.

Secretary and I just had a meeting.  First, we discussed the situation in the Middle East, including the recent developments in Iran.  Secretary Esper explained the situation in the Middle East and how the U.S. forces operating in the area.

I responded that we will make persistent diplomatic efforts to ease the tension and stabilize the situation in region.  I also explained the cabinet decision made in December of last year to send the Self-Defense Force to the Middle East.

Second, we discussed the issue of North Korea.  We affirmed that ballistic missile launches by North Korea pose a serious threat to regional security, and confirm the importance of whole implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution for complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all North — all Korea's weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges.  We confirmed to work closely together to counter North Korea's illicit ship-to-ship transfers. 

Third, Japan-U.S. alliance has become even stronger and we confirmed that we continue to closely work together to reinforce the alliance deterrence and response capability in order to operationalize our aligned strategies.  We also reaffirmed the significance of cooperation with various partners, including conducting joint exercise and capacity building assistance, with Japan-U.S. alliance being the cornerstone.

Lastly, we discussed the recent progress made by the Japanese government in acquisition of Mageshima, a candidate site for FCLP and confirmed to make continued effort.  It was highly significant that we discussed many issues of concerns and agreed upon the way ahead for our cooperation between our defense agencies.

I will commit myself to making our alliance even stronger based on today's outcome.  So thank you very much.

SEC. ESPER:  Good, thank you.

STAFF:  Phil Stewart, Reuters?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, North Korea had been expected to stage a significant weapons test around the holidays.  Do you still — do you see any indications that preparations for such a test (inaudible) are — are not going forward anymore, or do you still believe that such a test is likely?

And to Minister Kono, I'd be grateful for your thoughts on that issue, as well, whether a test of that nature is still likely in your view?  And also, a new opinion poll by Kyoto shows that almost 50% of Japanese voters oppose the dispatch of maritime Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East and opposition parties have called for its cancellation, given rising tensions and increased risk of — of a military clash.  Under what conditions would your government consider a cancellation, and would you consider formally joining the U.S.-led coalition?

SEC. ESPER:  I — I'll answer first since you stretched that one question into three or four, Phil.  Look, we are — we monitor very closely what's happening in North Korea with our Japanese partners and our South Korean partners.  I'm not going to speak to any intelligence matters. 

I think the important thing to say is that we — we endure — enjoy a very close relationship between the three of us.  It's very important that we — we remain strong and unified and that we continue to send a message to North Korea that the best path forward is through a diplomatic solution that results in the denuclearization of North Korea.

Q:  But that means the test is still possible in your view?

SEC. ESPER:  Look, it's — it's — we'll see what happens.  It's in — it's in Kim Jong-un's hands, what he intends to do.  We continue to send a message that we remain ready to fight tonight if necessary; and my second mission is to enable our diplomats, and we still believe that the best path forward is a diplomatic solution.

MIN. KONO:  90% — nearly — nearly 90% of crude oil that we import come from the Middle East and more than 80% of those crude oil go through Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman.  So it is Japanese people’s interest to protect safety of the navigation in the area.

So we are committed to send Self-Defense Force for information gathering.  Well, we have some constitutional restrictions, so we will not be participating in American or European initiative, but we will be closely communicating with United States as ally.

Q:  And your view on the risks of a North Korea test?

MIN. KONO:  Hmm?

Q:  Your view on the risks of a North Korea test?

MIN. KONO:  Well, it's up to Kim Jong-un, but we support American initiative to put the maximum pressure on North Korea so that Kim Jong-un could come to dialogue.  And hopefully he will make the right decision for his own people.

STAFF:  Next question, Mr. Maeda, Yomiuri.

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  My name is Maeda from Yomiuri. This is the 60th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and between these two nations, what kind of discussion took place, and also within this conference today, in terms of the cost burden, a sharing of the U.S. forces in Japan, did you have any discussion regarding that?

And also, Japan — compared with other countries, Japan does shoulder a higher burden ratio of the — supporting the forces, so what kind of burden sharing do you think is desirable in the future?  In terms of the North Korea has —is — has been launching a missile in — and so in terms of the allies, how do you approach them together to North Korea?

And also to the — what kind of information sharing is being done regarding the Japanese forces to be dispatched to the Middle East?

MIN. KONO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  OK.  In terms of Middle East, as I mentioned earlier, the crude oil being imported from Japan, it is mostly — we go through this area in the Middle East, so therefore we must continue the diplomatic efforts, as well as we also must strengthen the information gathering.  There is no change to the governmental approach of that. 

And with — along with United States as ally — allies, it is — it goes without saying that we will continue our information gathering — sharing.

SEC. ESPER:  I — I don't speak Japanese that well, but I'm sure the Minister's answer was excellent.


We did not discuss burden sharing.  We're — we're great partners and allies.  When that time comes, we'll have that conversation.

Q:  Hi, Minister Kono, forgive me, I — I— we didn't have the translation so I — I'm hoping you could answer that question on burden sharing again.  And specifically how much is the U.S. asking Japan to pay, how much more, and is Japan willing to pay it?

And then for Secretary Esper, do you support diverting additional DOD funding to border wall construction this year?  And on Iran — I have to ask both — you stood at the podium a week ago — almost exactly a week ago today and said that Qasem Soleimani was planning an attack and it was — could be days away.  Has that attack now been thwarted?  Is it still possible?

And then could you clarify the total number of embassies that actually were under threat?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so — so you've asked about seven questions there.


No, I — I — look, I spoke a lot about — about Iran last week.  I have nothing more to add to that.  We're having a very important discussion here today with a critical ally on what is the DOD's top priority region, which is the Indo-Pacific.  So that's — that's what we'll talk to today.  I've — I've already forgotten the first question you've asked of me.

Q:  Border construction, do you support diverting additional DOD funds and even — I mean, if you — if you want to talk about Asia-Pacific region, this is —how does that ...

SEC. ESPER:  No, no, you don't get to add eight now.  Come on.


Q:  ... adding on to the border question.  Do you support diverting funds to that, especially when you're —you're here talking about the priority of the Asia-Pacific region?  Is this a priority of yours, to send — to put money aside?

SEC. ESPER:  The — the first priority of DOD is protection of the homeland.  So the southwest — southwest border is a security issue, and so we'll see how things play out, but we remain committed to supporting the Department of Homeland Security in its mission.

Q:  And that means supporting it financially, as well?

SEC. ESPER:  If that's what it takes, we are prepared to support.

Q:  Minister Kono, on ...

MIN. KONO:  I just said we haven't discussed the host nation support in the meeting today.

STAFF:  And then final question, we'll go to Ms. Miki.

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  Miki of Nikkei newspaper, I have questions for both of you.  In terms of the U.S. forces in Japan, they're — has been a very heightened situation between U.S. and the Middle East.  And in terms of Iran — vis-a-vis Iran, has there been any concern from Minister Kono?  And also, was there any explanation from Secretary Esper?

And in terms of the U.S. forces in Japan, the Henoko facility is being delayed.  The government has announced that.  How — how was that explained from Kono — Minister Kono to Secretary Esper and what is your thought on that, Secretary Esper?

And also, as the Minister has just explained earlier, there has been a expected acquisition of the Mageshima.  How was that explained?

MIN. KONO (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):  ... many questions and one question being included.  However, in terms of the (inaudible) — excuse me, the Henoko — relocation to Henoko, we — we — it requires nine years and three months after the approval from the Governor of Okinawa.  This is what I explained.  And there has been a specific date that was announced to — so therefore, we —our intention is to permit progress towards that date. 

In terms of Middle East, between Iran and Japan, in terms of the exchange between our nations, we explained to him and by myself.

SEC. ESPER:  I — I don't have much to add.  I — I don't, you know, characterize my personal interactions with the counterpart, but I will say we discussed a wide range of issues, to — to — to include sharing views on the Middle East, on — on Asia, on any number of matters, and I think the Minister explained the — the — part of the discussion we had with regard to U.S. forces in Japan.

So we're very — both committed to this relationship, this partnership.  We — we celebrate 60 years here in a few days.  It's — it's been a — it's been a great partnership and we continue — are committed to building upon it in the days, months and years ahead.  OK?  Thanks, everyone.

MIN. KONO:  Thank you.