Visiting United States President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday talked up their alignment in policies on North Korea, but they were split on one issue: Whether Pyongyang's recent launch of short-range missiles was in breach of United Nations sanctions.
Mr Trump, who contradicted his own national security adviser John Bolton in a tweet on Sunday, said at a news conference with Mr Abe beside him: "My people think it could have been a violation. As you know, I view it differently. I view it as a man (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) who perhaps wants to get attention. And perhaps not, who knows, it doesn't matter," he said, adding that he was "not bothered at all by the small missiles".
"All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests. There have been no ballistic missiles going out. There have been no long-range missiles going out," Mr Trump said.
Mr Abe, who has been pledging in recent months to meet Mr Kim unconditionally in a U-turn from his previous stance, was however unequivocal that the launch had violated United Nations Security Council resolutions.
"The launch was of great regret," he said, adding that no timeline has yet been set for a summit with Mr Kim.
Mr Abe, whose final term as chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and hence as Prime Minister is set to expire in 2021, has made it his top priority to secure the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Tokyo officially recognises 17 abduction cases, with five victims returned in 2002 after a historic summit between the two sides.
Japan wants proper accounting on the remaining 12 victims, but Pyongyang, in asserting that the issue has long been resolved, said eight had died and the other four never entered the country.
Mr Abe, who has sought the support of world leaders including Mr Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to raise the issue at their respective summits with Mr Kim, yesterday reiterated his resolve to "directly meet Chairman Kim face to face without attaching any conditions to have a frank discussion with complete candour".
Mr Trump, who is on a four-day state visit to Tokyo ending today, yesterday met for the second time the family members "who have suffered the unthinkable heartbreak of having their loved ones abducted by North Korea".
While he pledged to fully support Mr Abe on this front, he also said he was in no hurry to secure a deal and to lift sanctions before North Korea gives up its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons programme.
"North Korea has tremendous economic potential, like perhaps few other developing nations anywhere in the world," he said. "(Mr Kim) knows that, with nuclear, that is never going to happen... I am in no rush at all. The sanctions remain."
Even so, security experts have long noted Tokyo's disquiet that Mr Trump may come to prioritise medium-and long-range ballistic missiles that threaten the US in a deal with Mr Kim at the expense of the short-range missiles that leave Japan squarely in the North's cross hairs.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry yesterday accused Mr Bolton of being "inordinately ignorant" in his assertion that the recent missile launches contravened UN resolutions, calling him a "warmonger whispering war to the President".
In a statement run by the KCNA state news agency yesterday, a spokesman said that giving up missile tests is tantamount to giving up its right to self-defence.
"If any object is launched, it is bound to fly in trajectory," he said. "Our military drill neither targeted anyone nor endangered the surrounding countries, but Bolton makes dogged claims that it constitutes a violation of the 'resolutions', impudently poking his nose into other's internal matters."
Dr Yasushi Watanabe, an expert on US-Japan ties and public diplomacy at Keio University, told The Straits Times of his concerns that Mr Abe's vow to meet Mr Kim with no strings attached may play into Pyongyang's hands.
"What will happen if North Korea asks Mr Abe for sanctions relief in exchange for a summit on the abductees issue?" he asked, noting that Mr Abe has invested much political capital both in courting Mr Trump and on the abductions issue.