Trump opens Tokyo visit with a tweet about North Korea that's sure to unnerve the Japanese

US President Donald Trump dismissed North Korea's short-range missiles that could strike Japan, and are often pointed in its direction.
US President Donald Trump dismissed North Korea's short-range missiles that could strike Japan, and are often pointed in its direction.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump kicked off the first full day of a state visit to Japan on Sunday (May 26) by playing down North Korea's recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles, undercutting declarations by both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the President's own national security adviser that the launches violated United Nations resolutions.

"North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter from his hotel in Tokyo before a round of golf with Mr Abe in nearby Chiba.

"I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me."

As it has pursued on-again, off-again denuclearisation talks with North Korea, the United States has been focused on the North's attempt to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States mainland.

But Japanese officials are worried about the sort of "small weapons" that Mr Trump dismissed - short-range missiles that could strike Japan and are often pointed in its direction.

As he opened a four-day visit that will focus on security, diplomacy and trade - and is filled with flourishes designed to please Mr Trump and highlight the close ties between the two leaders - the president appeared to risk ratcheting up Japanese anxiety that any nuclear agreement with North Korea could neglect their concerns.

The North Korean missile launches "are a breach of UN Security Council resolutions and extremely regrettable", Mr Abe said in Tokyo last week. "While cooperating closely with the US and other related countries, we are planning to tackle this appropriately by strengthening enforcement of related UN Security Council resolutions," he said.

 
 
 

On Saturday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton also told reporters in Tokyo that the North Korean missile tests violated UN Security Council resolutions.

"I think the prime minister and president are going to talk about making sure the integrity of the Security Council resolutions are maintained," Mr Bolton had said, referring to meetings between Mr Abe and Mr Trump scheduled for Monday.

Mr Bolton also expressed support for the idea of a summit between Mr Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which the Japanese leader has said he would pursue without preconditions.

Mr Abe proposed such a meeting after Mr Trump had two summits with Mr Kim, the second of which, in February in Vietnam, collapsed in disagreement. But the North Korean leader has expressed no interest in a meeting with Mr Abe.

Mr Trump's remarks on Sunday were not the first time he has appeared to undercut Mr Bolton, who often briefs reporters on the administration's hardline stances on geopolitical powder kegs like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, only to find the President walking back his assertions soon after.

The two men in recent weeks have also clashed on the administration's handling of Iran and policy in the Middle East.

"I'm the one who tempers him," Mr Trump said this month when reporters asked if he and Mr Bolton were aligned on international affairs.

Mr Trump, despite the advice of some of his top aides, has banked on the notion that his personal rapport with Mr Kim, one of the world's most brutal dictators, can get him a nuclear disarmament deal that has eluded past presidents.

In his tweet on Sunday, Mr Trump seemed to take delight in North Korea's scathing response to a comment last week by former vice-president Joe Biden - the Democratic presidential candidate the president is most concerned about - that branded Mr Kim a tyrant.

Mr Trump said he had smiled when the North Koreans "called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that's sending me a signal?"

Mr Trump misspelled Biden's name in the tweet, though it was corrected in a later message.

For his part, Mr Abe has bet on maintaining a close relationship with the American President in order to mitigate the North Korean danger and ward off a threat from the Trump administration to impose stiff auto tariffs.

 
 

If the President's soft stance on Mr Kim rattled Mr Abe, it did not show when the two leaders met on Sunday. Just before the pair headed into their round of golf at a country club in Chiba Prefecture, Mr Abe greeted the President with a smile and a handshake before driving Mr Trump away in a golf cart.

A Japanese television news station caught aerial footage of Mr Trump, clad in a red jacket, and Mr Abe, clad in blue, swinging their golf clubs and putting, surrounded by aides and security officials.

The local media has covered the visit breathlessly, reserving special interest for a trophy - called the President's Cup - that Mr Trump plans to present at a sumo tournament on Sunday evening.

With the trip underway, at least one part of Mr Abe's charm offensive seems to be paying off. In a phone interview with Mr John Roberts, a Fox News White House correspondent, Mr Trump said he would wait until after the July election in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament before pushing for a bilateral trade deal with Japan.

"I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that's OK," Mr Trump said on Saturday night during a reception in Tokyo with Japanese business leaders. "Maybe that's why you like me so much."