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Trump reassures Abe he will press North Korea at summit over past abductions of Japanese nationals

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Reuters, AP

During a meeting at the White House on Thursday U.S. President Donald Trump reaffirmed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he will push for a resolution to the Japanese abduction issue during his unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week in Singapore.

Abe expressed eagerness to meet with Kim himself, saying, “I would like to directly face North Korea and talk with (Kim) so as to achieve an early resolution to the abduction issue.”

In their meeting Trump and Abe underscored that the two allies, in coordination with the international community, will maintain pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang to compel the rogue state to rid itself of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Abe after their meeting, Trump said, “We will be discussing that with North Korea, absolutely,” in reference to the issue involving Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abe urged Kim to take credible actions to address the issue, saying that Japan is prepared to normalize diplomatic relations based on a 2002 bilateral declaration and extend economic cooperation to North Korea. “But first and foremost, Japan would like to extend its full support for the success of the historic U.S.-North Korea summit on the 12th (June) in Singapore so as to advance the abduction, nuclear and missile issues,” the prime minister said.

Expressing his readiness for a meeting with Kim in the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, Trump said the two sides could sign an agreement to end the 1950-1953 Korean War.

“We’re looking at it. We’re talking about it with them,” he said. “As you know, that would be a first step. It’s what happens after the agreement that really is the big point.”

Trump said he could invite Kim to visit the United States, possibly the White House, if the summit goes well, and that he would like to see the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea.

At the same time, the president said that if things do not go well, he could reinstate the policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.

Although Trump said last week he does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” in consideration of “a friendly negotiation” in the upcoming summit, he repeated that “we cannot take sanctions off” unless the North denuclearizes.

“Perhaps after that negotiation, I will be using it again,” he said. “We have a list of over 300 massive — in some cases — sanctions to put on North Korea. And I’ve decided to hold that until we can make a deal.”

In the meeting with Abe, Trump said he does not expect to reach a nuclear deal with Kim in just one meeting. Tuesday’s meeting, he said, will be part of “a process” toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

“I think it’s not a one-meeting deal,” the U.S. leader said. “At a minimum, we’ll start with, perhaps, a good relationship. And that’s something that’s very important toward the ultimate making of a deal.”

Aside from North Korea, Trump said he is seeking a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan as part of efforts to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with the world’s third-largest economy.

“We’re working hard to reduce our trade imbalance, which is very substantial, remove barriers to U.S. exports, and to achieve a fair and mutually beneficial economic partnership,” he said.

Trump said Abe had told him Japan would buy “billions and billions of dollars” of American products, ranging from military jets and civilian aircraft to agricultural products.

Japan, a key U.S. ally, is among a number of countries hit by metal tariffs recently imposed by Trump. The Trump administration has also threatened levies on imports of Japanese cars.

Trump has made clear he prefers a bilateral deal to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, while Abe’s government says a multilateral agreement would be best.

Trump and Abe held a joint news conference at the White House before heading to Canada for what promises to be a tense Group of Seven (G7) summit clouded by the U.S. leader’s aggressive trade policies.

But before tackling the thorny trade issue, Trump expressed unbridled optimism abouthis June 12 tete-a-tete with Kim in Singapore.

“The summit is all ready to go,” Trump said, with Abe at his side. “It’s going to be much more than a photo op.”

Since the first inkling that a Trump-Kim summit could be in the cards, Japan has repeatedly insisted that Washington be mindful not to let its guard down with the nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang.

During their last meeting at Trump’s Florida retreat in April, the U.S. president promised Abe he would raise the politically sensitive abductions issue in any talks with Pyongyang.

But the subject is hardly a priority for the businessman-turned-president, whose strategy appears to be in constant flux. Above all, Trump seems most enthused by the notion of being the first sitting U.S. leader to hold direct talks with a scion of the ruling Kim dynasty.

The intensifying diplomacy on North Korea has so far left Abe as the odd man out: Trump is preparing to meet Kim, while Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have each already met with the North’s leader twice.

For Richard Armitage, a former senior diplomat during the George W. Bush administration, Tokyo runs a very real risk of finding itself out in the cold after the Trump-Kim talks.

“We should absolutely prevent decoupling — decoupling Japanese and U.S. security,” he said. “This is and has been an aim of China and North Korea for a long time, and we can’t allow this to happen. That would be falling into a terrible trap.”

Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly accused his predecessors of failing to address the nuclear threat from North Korea, which launched its atomic program in the 1960s and began producing bomb fuel in the early 1990s. Past administrations have also used a combination of sanctions and diplomacy to seek denuclearization, but the results failed to endure.

Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea during the Bush administration, said a summit with the North had long been available to U.S. leaders.

“The fact was no U.S. president wanted to do this, and for good reason,” he said. “It’s a big coup for (the North Koreans), so the question is whether we can make them pay for it.”

Before he sits down with Kim, Trump must first face wary U.S. allies who question his commitment to their security and resent his quarreling with them on sensitive trade matters.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that the international community supports Trump’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but “if he does succeed in his negotiations with North Korea, we want him also to remain credible on the nuclear situation in Iran.” Trump pulled out of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran despite the objections of European allies.