WASHINGTON - After two days of talks with President Donald Trump in Florida, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed home on Thursday (April 19) largely empty-handed on trade, but with significant gains in aligning the United States with his country's interests on North Korea, especially on the emotive issue of Japanese abductees.
The major item on the agenda was Mr Trump's upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two leaders, who confer often, spent more than seven hours together over meals and a round of golf at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
But while Mr Abe got assurances from his host on Japanese security interests, the two men remained at odds on trade issues. The US and Japan are set to intensify talks on trade, but Mr Trump wants a bilateral deal while Mr Abe much prefers to keep it multilateral.
Mr Abe said at a joint press conference on Wednesday (April 18): "On the US side, that they are interested in a bilateral deal, we are aware of that. But at any rate, our country's position is that TPP is the best for both of the countries. And based on that position, we shall be dealing with the talks."
The TPP refers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose signatories included Japan and Singapore. It became the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Mr Trump pulled the US out of the TPP shortly after taking office last year.
Asked about the possibility of the US rejoining the agreement, Mr Trump said: "I don't want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can't refuse… I would do it. But I like bilateral… I am negotiating a one-on-one deal with Japan."
Mr Abe did not manage to win an exemption from recently imposed US tariffs on aluminium and steel for his country, unlike other US allies such as Australia.
On this matter, Mr Trump would only say: "I would look forward to some time in the future to taking them off."
Mr Abe maintained that Japanese steel and aluminum did not negatively affect American security.
"Many of those products… are greatly contributing to the US industries and employment," he said. "So recognising that, we'd like to continue to respond to this matter going forward."
Trade aside, the two leaders were in agreement on North Korea. Mr Trump assured Mr Abe that he would raise the issue of Japanese abductees when he meets Mr Kim some time in the coming weeks.
"We're with you," he told Mr Abe. "You're a lot closer (to North Korea) than we are, but we're working on this together."
While saying he hoped the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, likely at the end of May or in early June, would lead to positive results, Mr Abe also warned: "Just because North Korea is responding… there should be no reward; maximum pressure should be maintained."
Mr Trump gave the assurance that if the summit with Mr Kim looked like being unfruitful, he would "respectfully" walk out.
Still, at a working lunch with Mr Abe earlier, Mr Trump disclosed that State Secretary-designate Mike Pompeo had travelled to Pyongyang where he had a good meeting with Mr Kim.
Separately, the Nikkei newspaper quoted sources as saying that the US, Japan and South Korea were urging North Korea to commit to a hard deadline of 2020 for the complete abandonment of its nuclear programme. Such a result would be a political win for Mr Trump, who will be seeking re-election in 2020.