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Trump, During Visit To Japan, Talks Trade And North Korea

President Trump shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference at the Akasaka Palace on Monday in Tokyo.
Kiyoshi Ota
President Trump shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference at the Akasaka Palace on Monday in Tokyo.

President Trump on Monday pledged to stand by Japan against the "menace" of North Korea and said he hoped the two nations could come to a "free, fair and reciprocal" trade relationship.

At a joint news conference at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two leaders spoke of trade and security issues and offered condolences over the mass shooting at a church in Texas on Sunday that left at least 26 people dead.

Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party easily won elections last month, has been keen to amend Japan's postwar pacifist constitution to give Tokyo greater freedom to deploy its armed forces. That vision meshes well with Trump's desire to see U.S. allies share more of the burden for a defense that has long relied heavily on the United States.

Regional security

That issue has taken on greater urgency in the face of an increasingly bellicose North Korea, which routinely conducts test launches of its ballistic missiles over Japanese territory.

On how to handle North Korea, Abe said the two leaders are in "100 percent" agreement that "all options" are on the table, adding that Japan and the U.S. would work to increase international pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions and ballistic missile development.

The Japanese premier said he would announce on Tuesday that Japan will freeze the assets of 35 North Korean groups and individuals.

"No one likes conflict," the Japanese premier said through an interpreter. "But North Korea continues its provocation against international communities so we need to collaborate in the international community so they change policy," he said.

In an apparent reference to China's maritime muscle flexing in the South China Sea, Abe also said that a "free and open maritime order based upon the rule of law is the foundation of peace and prosperity in the region."

The president spoke of the "enduring bond" between the U.S. and Japan and said the most important area of cooperation was in countering "the dangerous aggressions of the regime in North Korea."

He said Pyongyang's "illegal nuclear tests and outrageous launches of nuclear missiles over Japanese territory" threatened "international peace and stability."

"We will not stand for that," Trump said. "The era of strategic patience is over."

Both the U.S. and Japan have warships equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, although Japan is also considering a similar shore-based system or possibly the same Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in South Korea.

Abe said Japan would buy Lockheed Martin's F-35A fighter jets.

Trump, who had been critical of Tokyo for not shooting down North Korean missiles that overflew Japanese territory, appeared to back off his earlier statements when asked about it by a reporter. He said Abe "will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of a lot of military equipment from the U.S."

"The prime minister of Japan is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment," the president said.

"We make the best military equipment by far."

"It's a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan," he said.

Abe said that Japan also needed to improve the quantity and quality of its naval forces. "In that process we will be buying more from the U.S., that is what I am thinking."

Bilateral trade

The sale of military equipment to Japan is one way the Trump administration hopes to narrow the $69 billion trade gap between the two countries. The president signed an order in January to fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling it a "disaster."

Abe had been a strong backer of the TPP, which came into effect during the Obama administration and included the U.S. and 11 other countries. Abe expended a lot of political capital to sell the idea to his people. Last year, he said it would be "meaningless" without the U.S.

Instead, Washington wants to forge bilateral agreements with Japan and other countries. Vice President Pence and Japan's Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso are working behind the scenes to come to an agreement.

Trump said the two sides were trying to "sort out" their trade differences. And Abe said he was hoping for "a good outcome" to the Pence-Aso talks.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports from Tokyo:

"Trump praised Japanese automakers Toyota and Mazda for investing more than $1.5 billion in American factories. But he complains Japanese consumers are not buying enough American-made cars.

Airplanes are a different story, Trump says. Japan is a big customer of Boeing's commercial jets. And Trump is pressing Japan to spend more on American military hardware."

The president also had good things to say about the Japanese economy in general, but added: "I don't know if it's as good as ours."

"I think not. OK? We're going to try to keep it that way. And you'll be second," the president said.

Japanese abducted by North Korea

The two leaders also discussed the lingering issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. After decades of official silence, Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that it had operated a state-sponsored program to kidnap Japanese citizens and bring them to North Korea to teach Japanese language and culture for purposes of espionage.

As NPR's Jackie Northam reported last year: "Japan believes 17 of its citizens were abducted during the 1970s and 1980s, and demanded their return. North Korea said it took 13 people. In 2002, Pyongyang released five Japanese captives. It said eight others, including Megumi Yokota, had died. It claimed her death had been a suicide, and her cremated remains were returned."

Abe thanked the president for referring to the abduction issue in his September speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

"It would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong Un would send them back," Trump said. "If they did it would be the start of something — it would be the start of something very special if they would do that."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.