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Trump backs Abe over N. Korea, takes aim at trade imbalance

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, on May 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday threw support behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to reach out to North Korea and Iran, but ramped up calls for Japan to fix its "unbelievable" trade surplus as the leaders agreed to step up talks toward an early reciprocal deal.

After their talks in Tokyo, Abe said the two allies are "completely" on the same page over how to handle North Korea, despite Pyongyang's recent firing of short-range ballistic missiles triggering contrasting responses.

"President Trump gave me his full support for my determination to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un and hold talks frankly and said he will extend support of any kind," Abe said at a joint press conference.

After a round of golf and watching a sumo tournament to deepen personal ties on Sunday, Trump said the bilateral relationship has "never been better than it is right now" as both nations are "committed" to each other.

Despite the apparent show of personal rapport, Trump, who had an audience with Japan's new Emperor Naruhito ahead of his official meeting with Abe, did not forget to land a jab at Japan's trade imbalance with the United States, suggesting there may be a major announcement on progress over the issue in August.

"Trade-wise, I think we will be announcing some things probably in August that will be very good for both countries," Trump said at the outset of the leaders' meeting, adding both countries will work to rectify what the U.S president sees as a lack of fairness in his country's economic relationship with Japan.

"We'll get the balance of trade, I think, straightened out rapidly," Trump said.

Abe is hosting Trump on a four-day state visit through Tuesday seen largely as ceremonial rather than substantive. The U.S. leader is being received as the first state guest of the new emperor, who ascended the throne on May 1.

Bilateral tensions over trade have been simmering as negotiators have failed to bridge the wide gap between them and reach a deal as pursued by Trump, who told Japanese business leaders in Tokyo, including the president of Toyota Motor Corp., on the first day of the state visit that he wants to make bilateral trade "a little bit more fair."

The formal discussions on Monday came a day after Trump tweeted that "great progress" has been made in trade negotiations but added, "Much will wait until after (Japan's) July elections where I anticipate big numbers!"

Japan has secured some breathing space as the United States delayed higher duties on cars and auto parts for up to six months, though concern persists the Trump administration will use the threat of levies and import quotas to pressure Tokyo into concessions.

As American farmers have become less competitive due to Trump's aversion to multilateral free trade agreements, such as a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership from which the U.S. leader withdrew, Washington is urging Tokyo to cut tariffs on farm products such as beef, pork and wheat.

Japan, for its part, has been calling for the removal of U.S. duties on imported industrial products.

On North Korea, Abe said no date has been set for an Abe-Kim summit but he is determined to meet him without preconditions.

It is a shift from his previous stance that any meeting should yield progress on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Up to now, Abe has relied on Trump, who has met with Kim twice for denuclearization talks, hoping the U.S. president will help break the deadlock in the long-standing abduction issue.

A cloud of uncertainty had loomed over the Abe-Trump summit -- the second of three planned over a three-month period -- due to differing approaches to Pyongyang's missile launches.

Japan protested to North Korea over the May 9 launches of short-range ballistic missiles as contravening U.N. Security Council resolutions, while the United States downplayed their significance.

Trump tweeted Sunday that North Korea fired off "some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me," contradicting his security adviser John Bolton who said a day earlier that the missile tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Among other major regional issues, Abe is now considering visiting Iran in mid-June to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran, Japanese government sources have said.

About Japan's efforts to mediate between Washington and Tehran, Trump said, "The prime minister and Japan have a very good relationship with Iran so we'll see what happens.

"I do believe that Iran would like to talk, if they'd like to talk we'd like to talk also. Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me."

Abe has held a number of phone conversations and face-to-face meetings with Trump to align their policies while trying to connect with the often unpredictable president by playing golf with him five times. Trump plans to visit Japan again for a Group of 20 summit in Osaka on June 28 and 29.

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