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Trump talks a success for Abe, with much needed diplomatic win on North Korea

by Tomohiro Osaki and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended a high-profile two-day meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida Thursday, he may have felt relieved at — or possibly even proud — having just pulled off a better than expected summit that some Japan-based analysts said could have gone much worse.

The beleaguered Japanese leader was in need of a win, desperately craving an opportunity to demonstrate that Japan-U.S. solidarity remains strong, as he tries to dispel mounting criticism at home that, under his stewardship, his government as been repeatedly caught off-guard by Trump’s recent policy shifts on North Korea and trade issues.

And though the two leaders still remain at loggerheads over some trade issues, they were able to largely coordinate their views on North Korea, experts said.

“The extent to which they were in sync with each other on North Korea was almost creepy,” Kazuhiro Maeshima, a professor of contemporary American politics at Sophia University, told The Japan Times.

Abe and Trump both confirmed that they would not repeat the “mistakes of past administrations,” vowing not to fall for false promises from Pyongyang that it would abandon its nuclear program and to keep the “maximum-pressure” campaign going until the regime denuclearizes in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” way.

Perhaps more noteworthy was the extraordinary lengths Trump went to address the decades-long abduction issue involving Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s.

Trump not only promised to raise the issue with Kim Jong Un when he talks with him in a planned meeting in the coming months, but also voiced his commitment to “do everything possible to have them brought back,” even crediting Abe with successfully having influence on the way he views the matter.

“His level of enthusiasm was unbelievable,” Trump said of an impassioned speech Abe had given on the abductees — one of Abe’s top policy priorities — during a dinner Wednesday.

“Abduction is a very important issue for me because it’s very important to your prime minister,” Trump said, answering a question from a Japanese reporter.

Unlike his predecessors, who regarded the abduction issue as more of a distraction from the primary U.S. goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, Trump, according to J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, has “shown more interest in the matter” than “any U.S. administration in recent years.”

“Clearly, denuclearization remains the prime objective for Washington, but I would not be surprised at all if Trump also raises the resolution of the abduction issue, in addition to the release of remaining U.S. citizens held in North Korea, directly with Kim Jong Un,” Miller said.

Seizing on Trump’s apparent sympathies with the issue and eliciting a strong verbal commitment — at a minimum — was a necessary achievement that Abe, weakened by a relentless cascade of scandals at home, needed in order to claim a diplomatic win, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare.

“Abe was in a situation where he would likely face a domestic backlash if there was not even the slightest progress on the abduction issue in the coming Trump-Kim talks,” Kawakami said. “Trump’s positive attitude, however, boosts public hope that Japan can leverage the U.S. cooperation to get the abduction issue moving forward under Abe’s diplomacy. So it’s not like he will come home completely empty-handed,” the professor added.

Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of Korean studies at Nanzan University in Nagoya, likewise said the two-day meeting resulted in a success for Abe in terms of reminding Trump what Japan wants out of the upcoming summit between the U.S. and North Korea.

The professor, however, cautioned about Trump’s unpredictability.

“I think Japan has strongly requested the U.S. raise the issue of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles” that pose a direct threat to Japan during the Trump-Kim summit, he said.

“But the U.S. may prioritize solving its own concerns” first, he added.

Japanese officials are concerned Trump may strike a compromise with the North if Pyongyang agrees to abolish intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, allowing it to maintain shorter range weapons that can hit Japan.

The two leaders, however, were less in agreement on trade, with Abe insisting on a U.S. return to the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact while Trump emphasized the U.S. will not rejoin the framework unless he is offered a deal, as he put it, “I can’t refuse.”

Abe also failed to get Trump to rethink his recent slap-in-the-face decision not to exempt Japan from the U.S.’s newly-introduced steel and aluminum tariffs, with the American president making it no secret he is dissatisfied with the massive trade deficit with Japan.

At the very least, however, the two leaders agreed to initiate new trade and investment consultations that Abe suggested will be placed under a separate economic dialogue currently taking place between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japan’s Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso. The consultations are meant to expand bilateral trade and investment to “our mutual advantage” and will be spearheaded by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Japan’s Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who will report to their respective bosses, according to Abe.

Maeshima of Sophia University said the new consultations, which he predicts will be sector-specific rather than the broader free-trade framework under Aso-Pence, are likely meant to ease Trump’s growing concern that the current dialogue is going nowhere.

“Abe failed on the steel and aluminum tariffs, but at the same time, it didn’t look like he was pressed too hard by Trump, who, for example, didn’t appear to have imposed any numerical targets on Japan as he did on China last year,” when he gave Beijing a 100-day moratorium to rectify trade disputes, Maeshima said.

Staff Writer Jesse Johnson contributed to this report.