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In Japan, Trump pushes a hard line on trade — and a soft line on North Korea

Trump said recent North Korean missile tests are nothing to worry about, and that he wants “fairness and reciprocity” in a US-Japan trade deal.

U.S. President Trump Makes State Visit To Japan
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, speaks with Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, while sitting at a counter during a dinner at the Inakaya restaurant in the Roppongi district on May 26, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo by Kiyoshi Ota - Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump arrived in Japan Saturday for a state visit with the country’s leaders, including its new emperor, but launched his trip with a reassuring message to an adversary: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

In a tweet, Trump wrote he has “confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me;” that promise is that North Korea will not test long-range weapons or nuclear missiles. The country has not violated that promise at the moment, but as Vox’s Alex Ward has reported, it has conducted tests of what are believed to be short-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks.

Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo does not share Trump’s confidence in Kim. While Abe responded to recent tests by saying they had “no immediate impact on Japan’s security,” he also called them “extremely regrettable” and a “breach of UN Security Council resolutions.” Abe wants UN resolutions governing North Korean behavior to be more strictly enforced; however, Trump has made it clear, as he did in his tweet, that he is not “disturbed” by the country’s recent weapons tests, suggesting Abe will have to look elsewhere for support.

Trade has been another sticking point in the US-Japan relationship, particularly with respect to cars. The countries have yet to agree on a bilateral trade agreement following the Trump administration’s exit from the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and Trump placed Japanese auto makers on edge in May when he called imported vehicles a threat to national security. This declaration came as the Trump administration announced a six-month hold on new tariffs that would negatively affect the Japanese auto sector.

Shortly after landing in the country, the president met with Japanese business leaders at the US ambassador to Japan’s residence, and gave remarks suggesting trade would be a prominent topic of discussion during his trip.

“I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that’s okay,” Trump said. “Maybe that’s why you like me so much.”

The president went on to sound a note of optimism, though: “With this deal we hope to address the trade imbalance, remove barriers to United States exports and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship. And we’re getting closer.”

After spending some time with Abe, Trump announced trade negotiations will actually be on hold for a few months, until a Japanese election in July.

The trade progress that has been made was highlighted at a lunch following a round of golf between the two leaders, when cheeseburgers made with US beef were served. Until early May, US beef imports had been restricted in Japan, following a mad cow disease outbreak in the early 2000s.

As Vox’s Alex Ward has reported, Trump and Abe have a warm working relationship, and these ties were deepened during Trump’s trip.

The two leaders took time away from their official duties to build bonds through sport, first with a round of golf. Later they took in a sumo wrestling match while sitting on special wooden chairs rather than on the traditional floor cushions. Trump also presented sumo star and the day’s champion Asanoyama with a “President’s Cup” trophy.

The president is set to meet with Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako on Monday.

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