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U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands in Tokyo on Nov. 6.   © Reuters

Abe, Trump agree to exert 'maximum pressure' on North Korea

Bilateral trade imbalance remains unresolved key sticking point

MASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump concluded two-day diplomatic talks in Japan on Monday, reaffirming their close relationship and agreed on exerting "maximum pressure" on North Korea. But despite the united front on security issues, the U.S. president stuck to his "America First" mantra on the economy, demanding that Japan correct the trade imbalance.

Following Sunday's golf diplomacy, the two leaders on Monday had a working lunch, held official summit talks and a meeting with the families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. Trump and his wife Melania separately met with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, during which the president said the Japan-U.S. relationship was stronger than ever.

For Japan, Trump's meeting with the families of Japanese abductees was as important as discussions to counter North Korea's nuclear threat. The abductions have been a top worry for Japan for decades. According to a Japanese government public opinion survey on North Korea November last year, 81.2% said they were worried about the abductees, much higher than the 72.1% anxious about a nuclear attack and the 71.5% fearful of missile launches.

"We will work together very closely and see that we can bring them back to Japan where they want to be," Trump said after the meeting. In the following joint press conference with Abe, Trump also said that if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un releases the abductees, it will be a step toward easing tensions on the peninsula. Trump is due to visit South Korea on Tuesday, as part of a 12-day tour of Asia ending Nov. 14.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during his regular press conference stressed that Monday's meeting of "the most influential person" with the families was a meaningful step toward resolution of the problem.

On North Korea, Trump declared that "the era of strategic patience is over." Abe backed Trump and said: "Over the two days of talks, I once again strongly reaffirmed Japan and the U.S. are 100% together."

"It is time to exert maximum pressure on North Korea," the prime minister said. He also revealed the Japanese government's plan of freezing the assets of 35 North Korean individuals and organizations in yet another sanction against the regime.

The two leaders also discussed the new strategy of maritime cooperation in the region. At the press conference, both Abe and Trump stressed the importance of a "free and open Indo-Pacific strategic partnership." Under this framework, Japan and the U.S. aim to strengthen ties with India and Australia, in a move to counter China's growing economic and military influence in Asia. The aim of this strategy is to pursue economic prosperity and secure peace and stability in the region. 

"Maintenance and enhancement of maritime order that is free and open is critically important for peace and prosperity of this region," Abe said. "We concurred to strengthen our cooperation toward realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific."

Not fair, not open

Away from security, Trump came down hard on economic matters. At the meeting with business leaders Monday morning, the U.S. president raised the sensitive issue of the trade imbalance between the two countries.

"We want fair and open trade. But right now, our trade with Japan is not fair and it's not open, but I know it will be soon," Trump said, adding that the U.S. had suffered massive trade deficits. He claimed the deficit almost amounted to $70 billion annually.

At the joint news conference, Trump again showed his dissatisfaction. "We seek equal and reliable access for American exports to Japan's markets in order to eliminate our chronic trade imbalances and deficits with Japan."

Abe, on the other hand, fended off that accusation by stressing that Japanese corporations have created many jobs in the U.S.   

The two leaders discussed this issue during their golf game on Sunday. After the golf, Abe told reporters that he held deep discussions with Trump on many issues including "difficult ones."

According to Japanese government sources, the two countries agreed to let Japan's Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to discuss further the trade issues. There was no discussion on a U.S.-Japan free trade agreement, the sources said.

In a bid to lower the trade deficit, Trump suggested that Japan buy U.S. military equipment. He said: "The prime minister is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment, as he should. And we make the best military equipment by far." With North Korea's nuclear and missile tests in mind, Abe said in response: "Qualitatively and quantitatively, we have to enhance our defense capability."

Nikkei staff writers Mitsuru Obe and Kentaro Iwamoto contributed to this story.


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