WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday that the “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea remains in force and he would raise the issue of Japanese abductees in the country when he meets the North’s leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday.
It was an assurance that the Japanese leader was seeking as he flew in to Washington for a last-minute session with the U.S. leader ahead of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.
Abe also raised the possibility of a meeting between himself and Kim, saying he hoped to be able to address the abductee issue directly with North Korea's leader.
Clarifying an earlier suggestion that Washington was relaxing its pressure campaign against Pyongyang, Trump said that the U.S. campaign of maximum pressure "is absolutely in effect" but that the use of the phrase was not appropriate given the current amiable relations.
"We don't use the term anymore because we are going into a friendly negotiation," he noted. "You'll know how well we do with the negotiation if you hear me saying, 'We're going to use maximum pressure,' -- you'll know the negotiation did not do well."
At the beginning of the meeting, Trump emphasized the need for North Korea to denuclearize. "If they don't denuclearize, it will not be acceptable. We cannot take sanctions off," he said.
The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea during the 1970s and '80s was a "pre-eminent" issue in Trump and Abe's discussion, according to the president, who promised to take up the matter with Kim. Abe referred to the abduction issue as being of the "highest priority."
"Japan ourselves must talk directly with North Korea in the final analysis. I am determined about that," the prime minister said. "I will have to think about a Japan-North Korea meeting ... I hope that we will be able to realize a summit that would lead to solution of these problems."
On trade, Abe explained that Japanese companies are expanding American employment. The two leaders agreed to commence the new "free, fair and reciprocal" trade talks in July.
"We're working hard to reduce our trade imbalance, which is very substantial," Trump said, adding they will work to remove barriers to U.S. exports and to achieve a "fair and mutually beneficial" economic partnership.
Trump said he was willing to invite Kim to the White House if talks toward denuclearization advance favorably. "Yes," Trump told reporters in the White House Rose Garden when asked whether the dictator of Pyongyang could be offered an invite. "If it goes well," the president added, saying that such a visit would be held at the White House first rather than his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Both Abe and Trump expressed a willingness to normalize relations with the North. "Japan ... is prepared to settle the unfortunate past, to normalize our diplomatic relations, and to provide economic cooperation," Abe said in the news conference.
The U.S. is looking at signing a peace agreement with the North as a first step, Trump said. "Normalizing relations is something that I would expect to do, that I would hope to do when everything's complete," the president said.
Trump said in a morning tweet that he would discuss North Korea and trade with Abe. The two men likely talked about Trump's plan to impose tariffs of up to 25% on cars imported to the U.S., a matter of grave concern for Japanese automakers.
It was their seventh meeting, having most recently played golf at the president's Florida resort in April.
Abe sought assurances that the U.S. would maintain pressure on Pyongyang, including through U.N. Security Council sanctions, until it disarms.
Ahead of the Trump-Abe summit, Shotaro Yachi, Abe's top national security adviser, spoke in Washington on Wednesday with his U.S. counterpart, John Bolton. The two affirmed they would stand by the complete, verifiable and irreversible demand, according to the Japanese government.
Nikkei staff writer Ariana King in New York contributed to this report.