National / Politics

At U.N., Abe speaks on Japan's pursuit of free trade and his hopes for meeting with North Korea's leader

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo

Japan will push for free trade as a country that has enjoyed the benefits of the postwar years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday, amid rising trade tension between the world’s economic powers.

In his address at the United Nations, Abe also expressed his determination to meet face to face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to end years of bilateral distrust and make a “new start.” In a change from his address to the assembly a year ago, he did not mention the need to apply pressure on Pyongyang.

“In the three years to come, I will do my very best to strengthen the free trade system,” Abe told the General Assembly. “Japan has now taken on the mission of imparting to the world the benefits of trade.”

Abe, who has addressed the assembly every year since 2013, started this year’s speech with the topic of trade, signaling its high priority at a time when the United States and China have engaged in tit-for-tat tariff hikes.

A day ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Abe sent a clear message that Japan wants a win-win relationship with the United States, noting that the two countries have a long-standing leadership role in the global free trade system.

Trump has taken issue with massive U.S. trade deficits with countries such as Japan and hopes to fix what he sees as unbalanced trade by making bilateral deals.

In spite of Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord, Tokyo has continued to tout the benefits of multilateral free trade frameworks. Japan and the European Union signed a free trade accord in July.

Abe said he will go “all-out” in ongoing negotiations among 16 Asia-Pacific countries including China to create a free trade zone under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The speech was his first on the international stage since winning another three-year term as head of Japan’s ruling party, setting him up to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.

Abe’s priorities include amending the pacifist Constitution that was put in place after World War II and settling long-standing diplomatic challenges.

In that three-year time frame, Abe pledged to do everything in his power to “clear the postwar structure from Northeast Asia.”

Amid expectations of North Korea’s complete denuclearization, Abe said he is paying “great interest” to the changes that appear to be taking place in that country.

But he reiterated Tokyo’s position that the normalization of diplomatic ties will not happen unless Pyongyang resolves the issue of the past abductions of Japanese nationals along with the nuclear and missile issues.

“North Korea is now at a crossroads at which it will either seize, or fail to seize, the historic opportunity it was afforded,” Abe said.

“In order to resolve the abductions issue, I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start, and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong Un,” he said.

Japan has long sought a resolution of the abductions of Japanese nationals to the North in the 1970s and 1980s, and Abe is keen to break the impasse.

Consistent with his diplomatic style, Abe has placed priority on building personal trust with leaders such as Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Japan and Russia have an unresolved territorial dispute that has prevented them from signing a postwar treaty.

In a remark that apparently surprised diplomats and analysts, Putin called for signing a treaty “without preconditions” earlier in the month.

The Japanese prime minister said the territorial issue should be resolved and a peace treaty signed, which would serve as the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Global leaders have gathered in New York for the general meeting of the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly where they outline visions and bring attention to concerns and challenges.

Abe stressed the importance of a rules-based maritime order as it pursues a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.

As it hosts a series of meetings next year, including a Group of 20 summit, Japan plans to lead the debate on global challenges ranging from climate change to health care so the country will be a powerful promoter of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, Abe said.