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Trump likely to meet families of abductees to North Korea on November visit to Japan

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Staff Writer

The White House has announced details of President Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia as U.S. leader — a trip full of potential minefields — as he seeks to firm up the country’s alliance with Japan and heap pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea.

Trump will travel to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines on a whirlwind tour from Nov. 3-14, the White House said in a statement Monday.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami on Tuesday confirmed Trump’s visit to Japan, which he said will be the first leg of the U.S. president’s trip to Asia.

The White House said Trump would visit Japan from Nov. 5-7, during which he is scheduled to meet with U.S. service members and Self-Defense Force troops and participate in bilateral meetings with the prime minister.

The visit will come just two weeks after Sunday’s Lower House election, in which media polls have pegged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party as the overwhelming favorite, making Abe’s return to the prime ministership almost certain.

Nogami also confirmed that Trump is expected to meet with the families of abductees to North Korea, although he noted that details have yet to be fleshed out regarding the timing and location of the meeting.

Media reports have said Abe has been arranging for Trump to meet the parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted from her hometown of Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast in November 1977, when she was 13 years old.

Abe has invested considerable political capital into resolving the issue of abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

The government officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and suspects North Korea’s involvement in other disappearances of Japanese citizens. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang maintains that eight — including Megumi Yokota — have died and that the other four never entered the country.

“This is about … Abe’s domestic optics, but also I think Abe wants to link the U.S. policy on DPRK to this more emotive side of the equation which has, in the past, been a wedge issue between the U.S. and Japan,” said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name.

“If he can get the issue into the Trump thinking about DPRK, then it will be very useful for him,” Bisley said. “It may complicate any negotiations with the DPRK but that’s not Abe’s concern.”

And Abe may very well be able to achieve this goal.

The prime minister has developed a strong rapport with the mercurial Trump — a rare prize among world leaders — meeting in person several times and speaking over the phone on numerous occasions, especially during periods of high tensions with North Korea.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had stoked concern in Tokyo with comments that he might abandon or alter the U.S. security alliance with Japan. Abe, however, has managed to mostly assuage those fears, and bring Trump back into the fold, securing numerous guarantees that the alliance remains “ironclad.”

The government is likely to use the visit by Trump to showcase this progress.

“We believe his visit is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the world how strong the Japan-U.S. alliance is,” Nogami said.

After Japan, Trump will head to South Korea to meet liberal President Moon Jae-in. The U.S. president will then speak before the country’s National Assembly, where he is scheduled to call on the international community “to join together in maximizing pressure on North Korea,” according to the White House.

Trump may also travel to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, the Yonhap news agency reported Oct. 10, citing an unidentified military official.

Trump is expected to send a “significant message” to North Korea either verbally or “kinetically” during the trip, Yonhap said, without elaborating on what that may mean.

Asked Monday about the potential DMZ visit, Trump said he would “take a look at that.”

Following South Korea, Trump will head to Beijing for bilateral, commercial and other events, including meetings with President Xi Jinping.

He will travel to Vietnam on Nov. 10 to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting, delivering a speech at the APEC CEO Summit in which he is slated to lay out the “United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and underscore the important role the region plays in advancing America’s economic prosperity,” the White House said.

He will wrap up the final three days of his visit with a trip to Hanoi and Manila for bilateral meetings.

In the Philippines, he will join a special dinner marking the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and will later celebrate the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, where he will hold bilateral leadership meetings with the grouping’s leaders, including Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The President’s travel will underscore his commitment to longstanding United States alliances and partnerships, and reaffirm United States leadership in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the White House said.

But in Asia, where few U.S. government posts have been filled, Trump will likely have his work cut out for him.

“Allies will need more than a Trump visit to be reassured,” said Bisley. “The U.S. needs to turn rhetoric of Asia strategy into actual policy, which means action on the ground, staff appointed in state, defense, and in the key embassies — South Korea still doesn’t have an ambassador nominated as is the case in many regional countries. A long way to go before the region is reassured.”

Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report