Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent a total of four hours in talks with U.S. President Donald Trump during his visit to Florida. Including the two leaders' dinner and rounds of golf, they spent about 10 hours together.
Much of the leaders' time was used to discuss their positions ahead of a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un slated to take place by early June. Washington confirmed it would seek to have North Korea end its nuclear and missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible way, and take concrete steps toward this.
In a news conference, Abe stated, "We should not give North Korea anything in return simply for taking part in talks," and Trump said maximum pressure would continue to be exerted on Pyongyang until denuclearization was achieved. Their comments can be taken as a clear indication to the world that they will not let their guard down even if talks proceed.
Trump stated that the U.S. would do its best for Japan. He expressed worries about North Korean short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan, and said that the North must abandon all of its ballistic missiles.
The president also indicated that the U.S. would bring up the issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens during his talk with Kim, and promised to work for an early solution to the issue. It remains unclear, however, how the issues Abe raised with Trump will play out in the summit between the U.S. and North Korea. There is expected to be some resistance from North Korea for bringing up the issues of missiles and abductions of Japanese citizens in addition to bilateral issues between Washington and Pyongyang. It is also possible that if dialogue reaches an impasse, the U.S. will shelve such issues and move forward with negotiations.
Officially ending the war between North and South Korea, which have suspended hostilities but not yet concluded a peace accord, is also reportedly under consideration. Trump has expressed a forward-looking stance to such a proposal.
However, even if tensions between the North and South are eased, as long as a military threat remains, stability will be a long way off. At the same time, there are fears that North Korea could use a warming of relations to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
In the past, North Korea has promised to abandon its nuclear weapons and received economic support in return, but then continued its nuclear program in secret, betraying international society.
Trump has stated that now is the moment for dialogue, but it is necessary to make sure Pyongyang is not simply trying to buy time again. Scrupulousness is required in approaching North Korea. Whether Prime Minister Abe, who has faced the North Korean issue for a long time, managed to convince Trump on this point will have a bearing on whether his trip can be considered a success.
Even if North Korea agrees to denuclearization, the issue of how it will achieve the complete dismantling of its nuclear weapons and missiles remains a major question. And even if the country's nuclear facilities are dismantled, it will be hard to build a mechanism to ensure it does not return to the nuclear development path.
To continue to tackle such points, Japan must become involved in the North Korean issue without breaking collaboration with the U.S.
Of course, the abduction of Japanese citizens is an issue unique to Japan, and there is no way to solve it other than for Japan to find its own path and negotiate with North Korea.
With North Korea scheduling separate summits with China, South Korea, and the United States, there are concerns that Japan could be left out in the cold diplomatically. It is important for Japan to be actively involved, including with the rebuilding of a framework for the Six-Party talks in the future.
Japan and the U.S. agreed to launch ministerial level trade talks led by Japan's Minister for Economic Revitalization Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, but the two countries diverge on their motives in trade.
Japan intends to urge the U.S. at such talks to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. Trump, on the other hand, apparently wants to bargain, putting pressure on Japan to open up its markets in light of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, and aims to drive a deal favorable to Washington.
On the issue of U.S. import tariffs on steel and aluminum, Abe asked for an exemption for Japan, but Trump indicated that there would be no such exemption unless an agreement was reached through negotiations. Trump is likely brandishing hard-line protectionist policies to draw concessions from Japan.
It is possible that Trump could present a blatantly America first policy and increase pressure on Japan to achieve successes ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November.
However, Japan has already agreed to the opening of agricultural markets that Trump has called for within the framework of the TPP. It was the Trump administration that unilaterally pulled out of the TPP.
There are suspicions that the U.S. import restrictions could violate World Trade Organization rules. Japan should not bend to bargaining. Rather, it needs to call for removal of these restraints.
Officials should pay heed to the possibility of such confrontations spreading to the North Korean issue. We hope Washington will react calmly so as not to adversely affect Japan-U.S. cooperation.