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Abe and Pence say no divide on North Korea during Tokyo meeting, warn against Pyongyang’s ‘smile diplomacy’

by Tomohiro Osaki and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

Amid signs of a gradual thaw in inter-Korean relations and a growing divide between Seoul and Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Wednesday their commitment to a policy of maintaining “maximum pressure” on North Korea days ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

In a joint statement with Pence, Abe also said Tokyo and Washington agreed to urge the global community not to fall for North Korea’s “smile diplomacy,” a reference to the regime’s recent olive-branch tactics.

Pence’s visit to Tokyo marked the beginning of his Asia trip, which will see him attend the games’ opening ceremony Friday.

“We respect the progress on inter-Korean talks, but we need to accept the reality that North Korea is persistently pursuing nuclear and missile programs,” Abe said as he stood alongside Pence in Tokyo, adding Pyongyang’s massive military parade slated for Thursday is proof that its provocative nature is still very much alive.

“Today, I shared the recognition with Vice President Pence once again that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea need to maximize pressure against North Korea through every possible measure. I was able to coordinate our North Korea policy completely.”

“Security is the foundation of our prosperities, and security in the Indo-Pacific is the main reason I came to Japan today,” Pence said. “Working together, the United States and Japan will continue to confront the most dangerous threat in the Indo-Pacific, the rogue regime … North Korea,” he said.

“We will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign,” Pence said, until North Korea takes steps toward “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

“The United States is committed to provide Japan with additional cutting edge defense systems. Our nations are now working together to deliver these new defense systems as quickly as possible,” he added.

Pence last visited Japan in April of last year as part of a Japan-U.S. economic dialogue framework involving his counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.

After meeting with Abe, Pence was expected to sit down with Aso Wednesday night to hold informal discussions on various topics including trade.

But “the economy isn’t really the highlight of his trip this time around, it’s North Korea that he will likely spend lots of time talking about,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters ahead of the visit.

Pence was scheduled to address U.S. military personnel Thursday morning at Yokota Air Base before flying over to South Korea.

His visit to Tokyo is not only intended to showcase Japan-U.S. solidarity but also send “a message to South Korea,” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, a professor of international relations at Sophia University. “It’s America’s way of warning Seoul not to go rogue” and engage in dialogue with Pyongyang on its own.

The vice president’s trip coincides withgrowing signs of rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula, as opposed to the more hard-line diplomatic stance maintained by Tokyo and Washington.

After negotiations with Seoul, Pyongyang decided to dispatch what it touted as a “high-level” delegation — comprised of athletes and officials — to the Winter Games. The regime announced Monday that the group will be led by Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Kim is reportedly the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the South since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953.

Prior to Pence’s visit, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo cautioned against Pyongyang’s charm offensive.

By taking advantage of talks between the two Koreas ahead of the Olympic Games, “it is likely that North Korea is trying to deflect international attention away from its nuclear and missile programs and buy itself more time to press ahead with further development,” the top government spokesman said.

Suga noted the possibility of the regime using overtures as leverage to elicit more financial support, stop U.S.-South Korea military drills and “drive a wedge” between its perceived enemies.

“We cannot be swayed by North Korea’s smile diplomacy,” Suga also said.

While the U.S. has stressed a commitment to playing hardball with North Korea, there is growing speculation that there may be a meeting between Washington and Pyongyang on the sidelines of the Winter Games. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pence separately left open the possibility of direct contact with the North, reportedly using the exact same language: “We’ll see what happens.”

Maeshima said it’s hard to foresee a breakthrough at this point. He added, however, that any face-to-face contact, however fleeting, between Pence and Kim would represent “significant progress,” nonetheless.

“Even three seconds of a greeting or conversation would be a step toward opening up a diplomatic channel between the U.S. and the North,” Maeshima said.

Abe, for his part, took a dim view on the prospect of such a dialogue.

“Unless North Korea shows sincere willingness to denuclearize itself and take concrete steps toward that goal, we cannot expect any meaningful dialogue,” Abe said.

Right from the onset of their discussion, Abe and Pence reaffirmed that the Japan-U.S. alliance is stronger than ever, with both agreeing that Wednesday’s meeting was a chance to further consider ways to bolster cooperation on security, diplomacy and economics.

“Our alliance between Japan and the United States has become more robust and unwavering than ever,” Abe said.

Abe and Pence did not discuss Tokyo’s recent feud with Seoul over the issue of “comfort women,” a euphemism for the women who were forced to provide sex in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, a Japanese official told reporters after the meeting. Nor did they talk about President Donald Trump’s recent stated willingness to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement under better terms.

Earlier that day, Pence visited the Defense Ministry in Tokyo to inspect the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air interceptors deployed by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

“I wish to enrich (Pence’s) understanding of the tough security situation surrounding Japan, including North Korea’s technological improvement in nuclear missile development, and China’s military reinforcement and increasing activities in its surrounding sea and airspace,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in a meeting with Pence.