Tokyo Report

Japan Gives Trump a Thumb’s Up for Hanoi Summit

Shinzo Abe expressed his support for the decision to leave the US-North Korea summit with no deal.

Daniel Hurst
Japan Gives Trump a Thumb’s Up for Hanoi Summit
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly backed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from a deal with Kim Jong Un based on immediate sanctions relief.

Abe – who has long called for North Korea to commit to concrete action in dismantling its nuclear and missile programs – offered supportive words after a phone call with Trump following the Hanoi summit’s collapse on Thursday.

As Yuki Tatsumi highlighted before the two-day summit, Japanese officials and observers had been nervous about the possibility of Trump signing up to a deal that provided premature incentives to North Korea. Despite the pause in nuclear and missile tests, which Trump has cited as an achievement, Japan’s 2018 defense white paper noted that “there is no change in our basic recognition concerning the threat.”

Speaking to reporters after the summit ended without a joint declaration, Trump said that North Korea “basically … wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.” North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, disputed this characterization in a later press conference, saying that Kim had sought only a partial lifting of sanctions, as outlined in more detail here.

After fielding a phone call from Trump from Air Force One, Abe voiced his support for sticking with the current economic sanctions. The Japanese prime minister also emphasized the need to achieve tangible action toward denuclearization.

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“Japan completely supports President Trump’s decision not to make concessions easily and to continue constructive talks to urge North Korea to take concrete steps,” Abe told reporters, according to a Kyodo News translation.

Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said he was “expecting a development toward complete denuclearization” and it was regrettable that the summit did not bear fruit, Kyodo reported.

Abe also said he was pleased that Trump had directly raised the issue of Japanese abductees with the North Korean leader on Wednesday evening, a major focus of Tokyo’s diplomacy. The fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s was a high priority for Japan ahead of the second Trump-Kim summit.

Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, admitted in 2002 that 13 Japanese citizens had previously been taken by North Korean special forces in “a reckless quest for glory.” Five were allowed to return to Japan that year and the regime claimed the others had died – but relatives and the government doubt the official account. The Japanese government lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and has suspicions about other people who also vanished. As previously outlined in The Diplomat, Tokyo has been pushing to secure the return of the other abductees.

In line with Japan’s approach before the Singapore summit in June 2018, Abe had asked Trump to raise the importance of resolving the abduction issue with Kim. Abe told reporters on Thursday that Trump had done so the previous day. However, the response from Kim has not been disclosed publicly. It is also unclear how long the pair talked about the abduction issue.

Once again, Abe indicated his willingness to meet personally with the North Korean leader. Japan’s position is that the abduction issue must be satisfactorily resolved as one of its preconditions for normalizing bilateral relations with North Korea. Abe said he would continue to cooperate closely with the United States in a bid to address the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues.