WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump has directly told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he will continue to tolerate North Korea’s test-firings of short-range ballistic missiles, according to diplomatic sources, despite unease in Tokyo over the launches.
The reason, Trump explained, was that his administration wants to keep North Korea engaged in negotiations and prevent Washington’s talks with Pyongyang from collapsing, the sources said.
The communication between the two leaders came to light Saturday, a day after North Korea carried out its third missile launch in just over a week.
After the test-firing, Trump told reporters at the White House, “I think it’s very much under control, very much under control.”
“We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem,” said Trump, who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late June and agreed with him to revive stalled negotiations. “We’ll see what happens. But these are short-range missiles. They are very standard.
“We never discussed that. We discussed nuclear. What we talked about is nuclear,” he said.
Although Japan has criticized North Korea over the recent firings, noting that they are violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning Pyongyang from using ballistic technology, Abe’s government has avoided a clear response to Trump’s approach.
Japan is concerned that missiles North Korea launched in recent weeks and in May were likely built with technology from the Russian-designed Iskander, a state-of-the-art short-range ballistic missile that is difficult to intercept.
However, Abe needs U.S. cooperation to realize a Japan-North Korean summit, through which he hopes to make progress toward settling the issue of Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese nationals.
Trump and Kim held their second summit in February in Vietnam but failed to bridge the gap between Washington’s insistence on its complete denuclearization and Pyongyang’s demand for relief from crippling economic sanctions.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in next year’s presidential race, has touted eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, including suspended nuclear tests and long-range ballistic missile launches by North Korea, as the result of his diplomatic efforts. But the U.S. president, who has met with Kim three times and trumpeted their close ties, would be under pressure if North Korea resumed such tests, experts say.
During their meeting at the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom at the end of June, Trump and Kim agreed that their countries would resume the denuclearization negotiations within weeks. Those talks have yet to take place, at least openly.
Trump’s tolerance of North Korea’s short-range missile tests, however, comes at a very bad time for Tokyo. Japan has seen its ties with South Korea hit fresh lows over trade and history rows, threatening joint efforts to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
The South Korean government has said it would review whether to continue the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a key cog in tripartite security cooperation with the United States.
The GSOMIA, signed in 2016 under the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and renewed automatically each year in August, is set to expire in late November. To scrap it, a party must notify the other 90 days ahead of its expiration, meaning a decision would have to come before Aug. 23.
Japan has said it hopes to renew the pact.
In Bangkok on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a meeting with Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. But there was apparently no progress in easing bilateral tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.