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Japan, US to enter trade talks, shelving higher auto tariffs for now

President Donald Trump takes a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from his suit coat pocket during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Lotte New York Palace hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, on Sept. 26, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- Japan agreed Wednesday with the United States to start negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement while avoiding higher U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto exports that Tokyo feared would have a devastating impact on the economy.

The start of bilateral negotiations to lower tariffs signals a major concession by Japan to U.S. President Donald Trump as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has preferred a multilateral approach to address trade issues.

The agreement was reached in a meeting between Abe and Trump, who has taken issue with the huge U.S. trade deficit with Japan and called for "reciprocal" trade.

"The agreement today will create a win-win economic relationship through the promotion of trade," Abe told a press conference in New York where he attended the U.N. General Assembly.

Autos and agricultural products are seen by the two countries as sensitive items. Abe said he confirmed with Trump that Japan will be exempted from the potential imposition of tariffs on imports of cars and auto parts as long as trade negotiations are under way.

For agriculture produce, the United States "respects" Tokyo's position that it will not make bigger concessions than those already agreed to under existing free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral framework from which the United States has withdrawn.

"Trade restricting measures benefit no one. Japan and the United States have been benefiting from the free trade system and there should be no turning back," Abe said.

The summit came amid growing trade friction among the world's major powers, notably the United States and China.

Upcoming negotiations are expected to cover a wide range of goods and services, but it remains unclear when they will start negotiations due to congressional procedures.

"I think it will be something very exciting," Trump said at the outset of his meeting with Abe. "It can only be better for the United States...I think it's going to be better, really, for both countries."

The agreement is seen as good news for Trump in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections in November.

Japanese officials have been wary of the U.S. push for negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement and fear that Washington will demand more access to the auto and agriculture sectors.

The Abe-Trump summit was also aimed at enhancing coordination over the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Following up on his unprecedented June summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Trump has said he wants to meet the North's leader again "in the not so distant future."

At the meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Japan and the United States confirmed the need for bilateral cooperation as Kim pledged during the inter-Korean summit last week to permanently dismantle his country's major nuclear complex if the United States takes unspecified reciprocal actions.

Speaking at the press conference to wrap up his visit to New York, Abe reiterated that he is ready to meet with Kim face to face and put an end to years of mutual distrust.

"Should any summit be held, it should be something that will contribute to resolving the abduction issue."

Abe has made it a priority to settle the issue of the abductions by North Korea of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

South Korean President Moon Jae In told Abe on Tuesday that Kim had said he was ready to engage in dialogue with Japan and improve ties at an appropriate time, according to South Korea's presidential office.

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