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Editorial: Doubts linger over Japan-US alignment on North Korea

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently held telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. Holding such talks was significant from the perspective of coordinating views ahead of the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders at the end of February. But there remain doubts about whether Abe and Trump are on the same wavelength.

Trump said recently that he was in "no rush" to see North Korea denuclearize as long as it did not conduct any nuclear tests or missile launches -- as if to lower the bar on negotiations. It appears that he is taking political precautions in case there are no major developments at the upcoming summit.

Because of this, the telephone talks were the time for Abe, as the nation's leader, to urge Trump to steadily press forward to achieve the verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.

The Japanese side, however, has not disclosed any of the exchange between the leaders on the nuclear issue. Japan needed to underscore the importance of North Korea dismantling the nuclear weapons it already possesses, along with its intermediate- and short-range ballistic missiles -- not just its intercontinental ballistic missiles that would pose a threat to the United States. But was this point sufficiently discussed?

Trump has started to display a more lenient stance, as if to suggest that some sanctions on North Korea could be removed if Pyongyang takes a certain level of action. No doubt the United States is not looking to excessively provoke North Korea before the talks.

Japan and the United States, however, were supposed to have been united on maintaining sanctions against North Korea until denuclearization was achieved. If Trump loosens sanctions without sufficient steps from the North as he hurries to produce results, then Pyongyang may end up keeping its nuclear weapons. Japan and the U.S. should work together on various levels.

After the telephone talks, Abe stated, "We spoke at length particularly about the abduction issue" -- a reference to North Korea's past abduction of Japanese citizens. But this comment was a response to a reporter's question focusing on Trump's stance toward the nuclear issue. It appeared that Abe was going out of his way to underscore that the leaders talked about the abductions, so that a divergence of opinions between Tokyo and Washington on the key nuclear and missile issues would not surface.

The abduction issue is fundamentally an issue that should be solved between Japan and North Korea. Last year, too, after Abe talked with Trump ahead of the June 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit, Abe expressed a desire to "talk with North Korea to solve the abduction issue," but there was no further movement on this.

Japan will not progress simply by asking the United States to represent Tokyo's interests. While backing the talks between the U.S. and North Korea, the Japanese government should independently consider how to engage with Pyongyang.

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