National / Politics

Abe, Trump reconfirm commitment on North Korea

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump held a 30-minute teleconference Monday about their commitment to dealing jointly with North Korea and demanded that Pyongyang “exercise self-restraint” rather than engage in more military provocations during its army’s anniversary celebration.

The teleconference took place shortly before Trump held a similar conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Both bilateral conversations took place a day before Pyongyang plans to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army.

North Korea has threatened to hold its latest atomic weapon demonstration at any time, a move that would escalate tensions in the region. Analysts have speculated that Pyongyang will opt to hold a ballistic missile or nuclear test around the army anniversary.

After the teleconference, Abe said he told Trump that Tokyo appreciates his “words and actions that show all options are on the table,” repeating a phrase that presumably includes military action.

“Then we completely agreed to urge North Korea to exercise strong self-restraint,” Abe said.

He also pointed out that two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers on Sunday had started an exercise with the USS Carl Vinson and the aircraft carrier’s escort vessels in the Western Pacific.

“Our country will deal with the situation in a decisive manner” and continue to closely monitor North Korea’s activities, Abe said.

The two destroyers departed Sasebo naval base in Nagasaki Prefecture on Friday, joining the Carl Vinson strike group to show off the military might of the Japan-U.S. alliance and put more pressure on the North to refrain from provocative actions.

In the meantime, South Korea’s defense authorities said Monday that the Vinson is scheduled to hold a joint training exercise with South Korean ships near the peninsula.

“Consultations are underway in connection with the exercise,” Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, said at a press briefing, according to Yonhap news agency. He did not elaborate.

The Abe-Trump teleconference was the third this month, following talks on April 6 and 9. Tokyo apparently wanted to tout its close ties with Washington by getting Trump to talk with Abe before Xi. The April 6 teleconference was arranged at Tokyo’s request a day before Trump met Xi for the first time at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

During their talks Monday, Abe and Trump again agreed that China should play “a bigger role” in defusing the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, according to a Japanese official who briefed reporters.

Tokyo and Washington have long urged Beijing to slap tougher economic sanctions on the North and pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile development programs. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and provides nearly all of its crude oil imports.

According to Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, Xi told Trump that Beijing is “strongly opposed to actions that violate resolutions of the United Nations Security Council,” a statement that was apparently aimed at urging Pyongyang not to hold a test of either type of weapon.

Xi at the same time urged “related countries to maintain self-restraint” and thereby “avoid raising tension on the Korean Peninsula,” according to Xinhua.

In recent weeks, Japanese officials have repeatedly emphasized that Tokyo supports the U.S. position of not excluding military action if the North continues to provoke.

Military experts, however, say attacking North Korea is easier said than done. In the least, an attack would likely trigger a second Korean War, resulting in heavy civilian casualties in Seoul, which is very close to the border with North Korea.

Pyongyang has deployed numerous artillery and missiles units near the border, ready to destroy Seoul if war breaks out.

“Every country wants to avoid any military action,” a senior Japanese official said later in the day. The U.S., China and Japan “are now racking their brains hard” to avoid such a situation, the official said.