National / Politics

Abe wins promise that Trump will raise abductions issue with North Korea's Kim

Kyodo, AP

In a win for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese leader said Tuesday that U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to raise the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang decades ago during his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump and Abe met at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where the pair agreed to pile “maximum pressure” on North Korea until it takes concrete steps toward “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said.

Tokyo was also seeking a U.S. commitment that any denuclearization deal the president seals with Kim will include not just long-range missiles but those that could be aimed at Japan.

Appearing before the cameras on the first day of their two-day summit, Abe expressed gratitude for Trump’s “understanding that Japan has put emphasis on the abduction issue” and for his “promise to take it up” in the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, which is expected by early June.

For his part, Trump stressed that the two sides in this week’s talks are unified.

“Japan and ourselves are locked, and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea,” he said.

Nishimura, who attended the meeting and then briefed reporters, quoted Trump as telling Abe that the United States “will do its best for Japan” on the North Korean issues as a whole.

“We will bring up the abductees. We’ll bring up many different things. I think it’s a time for talking, it’s a time for solving problems. I know that’s been a very big factor for you,” Trump told Abe at the meeting, part of which was open to the media.

Noting that Washington has been engaged in direct talks at “extremely high levels” with Pyongyang in preparation for the summit, the U.S. president said, “I look forward to meeting with Kim Jong Un. And hopefully, that will be a success. And maybe it will be, and maybe it won’t be. We don’t know. But we’ll see what happens.”

The abduction issue has long been a key issue for Abe, and is one of his government’s top priorities. Tokyo officially lists 17 of its citizens as having been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.

Five of the 17 were returned to Japan in 2002, following then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s meeting with Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, but North Korea insists eight have died and the other four never entered its territory.

The U.S. itself is pushing for the release of three Americans.

In a stunning revelation that emerged during the first day of the two leaders’ talks, two officials confirmed a report that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had recently traveled to North Korea to meet Kim, a highly unusual, secret visit.

The officials were not authorized to discuss the visit publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Washington Post, which first reported Pompeo’s meeting with Kim, said it took place over Easter weekend — just over two weeks ago, shortly after the CIA chief was nominated to become secretary of state.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump and Kim had not spoken directly.

Contacts between the two side in recent weeks have involved U.S. intelligence and State Department officials, a U.S. official had said earlier this month. The most senior U.S. official known to have visited Pyongyang in recent years was then-U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.

Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, said U.S. officials are looking at five different locations for a meeting with Kim. Asked if any of those were in the United States, Trump said “no”.

A U.S. official said sites in Southeast Asia and in Europe were among those under discussion. Kim has rarely left North Korea.

Speculation has centered on a range of sites including Pyongyang, the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas, Stockholm, Geneva and Mongolia.

The summit between Abe and Trump comes after Washington surprised Tokyo with Trump’s decision to meet Kim, a development announced last month by a South Korean official, as well as the president’s recent decision not to exempt Japan from steel and aluminum import duties.

Japan has been somewhat sidelined amid the flurry of diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear program, including a meeting between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping late last month, scheduled talks between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, as well as the planned meeting between Kim and Trump.

While official remarks have lauded the close ties between the two leaders, experts on the Japan-U.S. alliance point to an apparent rift between them, in particular on trade.

Abe is believed to have demanded that the United States exempt Japan from the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, especially as most major U.S. allies have been extended such treatment.

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, had said earlier Tuesday that issuing Japan a waiver on the tariffs was “on the table,” but he declined to say what Trump would ask for in return.

Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Japan is seen as levying pressure to prod it into a bilateral free trade deal as a means to reduce the U.S. deficit with the country through increased exports.

Japan has expressed reluctance about a free trade deal with the United States, given Tokyo’s preference to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement from which Washington withdrew soon after Trump’s inauguration in January last year.

On Tuesday evening, Trump reiterated a call for a bilateral trade deal with Japan, saying he believes bilateral deals are “far more efficient” than multilateral arrangements like the TPP.

“Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn’t work. Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers,” he tweeted.

The tweet came after Trump appeared to soften his stance on the TPP last week when he tweeted the United States would join the pact, now with 11 members, if it offered “substantially better” terms.

Given Trump’s talk of rejoining the deal, Abe has prepared to propose a new framework to discuss trade issues with the United States as a way of coaxing it back to the agreement, according to Japanese government sources.

In a major policy shift, Trump directed Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last Thursday to look into rejoining the TPP, as the United States is embroiled in a simmering trade dispute with China, a non-TPP country.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump also confirmed that North and South Korea are negotiating an end to hostilities before next week’s meeting between Kim and Moon. The meeting will be the third inter-Korean summit since the Koreas’ 1945 division.

“They do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war,” Trump said.

North Korea has long sought a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. It is unusual for the North to seek to broach the issue directly with South Korea rather than with Washington itself. The armistice that ended the fighting was signed by the United Nations Command — the U.S.-led forces in the conflict — North Korea and China. South Korea was a member of the U.N. Command but was not a direct signatory.

The U.S. has traditionally sought to resolve the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before addressing the North’s demands for a peace treaty, which the isolated, authoritarian nation views as a means to ensuring its security. The U.S. retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression.

Trump took credit for the inter-Korean talks, saying, “Without us and without me, in particular, I guess you would have to say, they wouldn’t be discussing anything.”

On Wednesday, the agenda will broaden to include other issues affecting the Indo-Pacific region, including trade and energy, and Trump said he and Abe would “sneak out” to play a round of golf. Trump and Abe will also hold a news conference before the president and first lady host the Japanese delegations for dinner.

Both leaders could use a successful summit to give themselves a political boost at home. Trump has been hounded by controversies linked to an investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election and Abe is struggling with declining popularity because of scandals over suspected cronyism. After five years in office, Abe is one of Japan’s longest-serving, post-World War II prime ministers but has suffered plummeting poll ratings over allegations that a school linked to his wife received preferential government treatment in a land sale.