Trade And Nukes On The Agenda As Trump Meets Japan's Prime Minister

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 2:43 am

Updated at 4:32 p.m. ET

President Trump opens two days of talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday at his South Florida resort, under sunny blue skies that offer no hint of the clouds forming on the U.S.-Japan relationship.

The first thunderclap came last month, when Trump unexpectedly accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nuclear diplomacy is expected to be a dominant focus of this week's meeting between Trump and Abe.

On Tuesday, Trump said the U.S. has already entered into direct talks with North Korea at "extremely high levels." He said there appears to be a lot of good will but cautioned, "ultimately it's the end result that counts."

The threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program was underscored the last time Trump and Abe met at Mar-a-Lago, in February 2017. The two leaders were having dinner at the president's club when news arrived that North Korea had fired a test missile into the Sea of Japan.

Although Trump has advocated a policy of maximum pressure against North Korea, Abe worries that in his meeting with Kim, Trump might accept something less than a complete dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

"I'd like to underscore the importance of achieving the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization," Abe said through an interpreter, "as well as the abandonment of missile programs of North Korea."

White House aides say Abe needn't worry about Trump granting concessions to Pyongyang.

"President Trump has a team of people working for him now who have extensive experience dealing with the North Korean nuclear menace," said Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs.

"The president has a great degree of respect for Prime Minister Abe's views on security in the region and on the peninsula," Pottinger added, stressing that Trump would listen carefully to Abe's concerns.

Trump said that the summit with Kim will only take place if North Korea cooperates.

"It's possible things won't go well and we won't have the meeting," Trump said. "But we will see what happens."

Trump also welcomed upcoming talks between North and South Korea, raising the prospect those talks might produce an actual peace treaty to replace the decades-old cease-fire.

"People don't realize the Korean War has not ended. It's going on right now," Trump said. "And they are discussing an end to the war. So subject to a deal, they would certainly have my blessing and they do have my blessing to discuss that."

Trade is also on the agenda for Trump and Abe. Japan is feeling the pinch of a new 25 percent tariff the Trump administration has imposed on steel imports. While other U.S. allies such as Canada and South Korea won a reprieve from those tariffs, Japan has not.

Trump has used the cudgel of steel tariffs to win concessions from other trading partners, and that may be his goal with Japan. The U.S. had a trade deficit with Japan last year of $56 billion. Last week, Trump tweeted that he's working toward a trade deal with the country, "who has hit us hard on trade for years." Japan, however, has shown little interest in bilateral trade talks with the U.S.

Abe spent considerable political capital pushing Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact advanced by the Obama administration, only to have Trump pull the U.S. out of the deal in one of his first acts as president.

Japan and the other TPP nations have forged ahead with the agreement without the U.S. Then, in another turnaround last week, Trump told farm-state lawmakers he would consider rejoining TPP — a move that caught trading partners and even members of his own administration by surprise.

It's not clear that anything will come from that. Trump tweeted that he would only rejoin TPP if he could do so on much better terms — which the other countries are unlikely to grant.

"For the American side at the moment, it's more of a thought than a policy, that's for sure," said Larry Kudlow, the new director of Trump's National Economic Council.

Despite Trump's unpredictability, Abe has worked hard to cultivate the American president. He's met more often with Trump than any other foreign leader has. Their first encounter came just over a week after the 2016 election, when Abe made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to confer with the new president-elect.

As an introductory gift, Abe presented Trump with a $3,755 golf driver. Abe's father, who also served as prime minister, once golfed with President Eisenhower. Trump and Abe have continued the tradition in both Japan and Florida.

Although aides initially said there would be no golf during this visit, Trump said he and Abe will "sneak out" for a round on Wednesday.

The president and first lady will also host Abe and his wife for a pair of dinners, Tuesday and Wednesday.

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President Trump said today the U.S. has entered into high-level talks with North Korea. The president made that announcement at his private resort in South Florida where he's meeting today and tomorrow with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two are talking about the North Korean nuclear threat as well as trade differences and their plan to sneak in a round of golf tomorrow. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from West Palm Beach, Fla. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about these high-level talks the president mentioned with North Korea - seems like he's come a long way from calling Kim Jong Un Little Rocket Man.

HORSLEY: (Laughter) Indeed he has, Ari. You know, last month, the president surprised just about everyone really when he accepted Kim Jong Un's invitation to a summit meeting. And in anticipation of that summit, Trump says the U.S. has been engaging in some high-level diplomacy with Pyongyang.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have had direct talks at very high levels - extremely high levels - with North Korea. And I really believe there's a lot of goodwill. Lot of good things are happening. We'll see what happens. As I always say, we'll see what happens.

HORSLEY: No date has been set yet for the meeting with Kim, although Trump says it could come in early June, maybe a little sooner than that. He also says the two sides are looking at five possible locations for the meeting.

SHAPIRO: This worries Japan's prime minister, who is President Trump's guest at this week's summit. Explain why this is of concern to Japan.

HORSLEY: Shinzo Abe worries that despite his tough rhetoric towards North Korea, President Trump might come away from his meeting with Kim having agreed to something less than a full dismantling of North Korea's nuclear and missile program. Obviously Japan is a much closer target for North Korea than the United States is. And so Abe spoke to reporters this afternoon through an interpreter.


PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) I'd like to underscore the importance of achieving the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization as well as the abandonment of missile programs of North Korea.

HORSLEY: Now, White House aides say Japan has no need to be concerned, that not only is Trump himself hawkish when it comes to North Korea and its nuclear weapons, but he's got a hawkish new national security adviser in John Bolton to argue against any backsliding.

SHAPIRO: The other big focus of this meeting is trade. And I know Japan's not happy with Trump's new steel tariffs. Explain the dynamic there.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Japan is really feeling the pinch of those new tariffs - 25 percent on imported steel. Other big steel suppliers like Canada and South Korea got an exemption from those tariffs, but Japan did not. This could be President Trump's way of putting pressure on Japan to enter into some sort of bilateral trade talks. But so far, Tokyo has shown no interest of that - in that.

Japan is party, however, to the big Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation - now 11-nation deal that Trump pulled out of. Last week, Trump floated the idea that maybe the U.S. will re-enter the TPP, but his economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, cast some doubt on that today about whether that's going anywhere.


LARRY KUDLOW: For the American side at the moment, it's more of a thought than a policy. That's for sure.

HORSLEY: Trump himself has said the U.S. would only re-enter the TPP if it could get better terms, and that doesn't seem terribly likely.

SHAPIRO: Also important on the agenda - golf (laughter). President Trump and Shinzo Abe are going to play a round tomorrow.

HORSLEY: Yes. Aides had insisted in the run-up to this meeting that there was no time for golf, that this was a working meeting. But in a not terribly surprising development, Trump himself said they will try to sneak off and play a round tomorrow morning. He and Abe are both avid golfers. When Abe visited Trump just after the 2016 election at Trump Tower, he presented the president-elect with a fancy golf driver. And they bonded on the links both here in Florida and in Japan. Some history here, Ari - Abe's dad was also prime minister, and he once played golf with then-President Eisenhower.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley speaking with us from West Palm Beach, Fla. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: And one final note - at this hour, The Washington Post is reporting that CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is nominated to be secretary of state, made a secret trip to North Korea weeks ago, where he met with Kim Jong Un. NPR has not independently confirmed that report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.