By Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin
TOKYO — Putting a face on the threat posed by North Korea, President Donald Trump stood Monday with anguished families of Japanese citizens snatched by Pyongyang’s agents, calling their abductions “a tremendous disgrace.”
Trump pledged to work to return the missing to their families, intensifying the pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by elevating these heart-wrenching tales of loss to the international stage in hopes of pushing Pyongyang to end its provocative behavior toward American allies in the region.
“We’ve just heard the very sad stories about family members — daughters, wives, brothers uncles, fathers — it’s a very, very sad number of stories that we’ve heard,” Trump said. “They were abducted in all cases by North Korea and we will work with Prime Minister Abe on trying to get them back to their loved ones.”
North Korea has acknowledged apprehending 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, but claims they all died or have been released. But in Japan, where grieving relatives of the abducted have become a symbol of heartbreak on the scale of American POW families, the government insists many more were taken — and that some may still be alive.
Trump has delivered harsh denunciations of Kim and showing no sign of easing pressure even while in the very Asian capitals threatened by Pyongyang’s missiles.
But Trump’s message on the second day of his five-country Asian tour was overshadowed by another tragic shooting back home. Trump called the Texas church shooting that claimed at least 26 lives “an act of evil,” denounced the violence in “a place of sacred worship” and pledged the full support of the federal government.
North Korea has long been the critical issue looming over Trump’s trip that will include direct talks with Trump’s Chinese and Russian counterparts.
Trump and Abe, who has taken a more hawkish view on Pyongyang that some of his predecessors, voiced the same concern over the North’s victims and repeatedly touted their close relationship over two days that included a round of golf, a hamburger with American beef and dinner at a teppanyaki restaurant.
Disagreements on trade could strain the friendship.
Trump complained Monday that Japan had been “winning” for decades and rebuked the current relationship, saying the trade deals were “not fair and not open.” He told a group of American and Japanese business leaders: the United States was open for business, but he wanted to reshape the nations’ trade relationship, though he did not say how he would cut the trade deficit with Japan, which totaled nearly $70 billion last year.
He also downplayed the potentially contentious nature of the negotiations, though the Japanese government has not shown much appetite for striking a new bilateral trade agreement. Tokyo had pushed to preserve the Trans- Pacific Partnership, which Trump has abandoned.
“We will have more trade than anybody ever thought under TPP. That I can tell you,” Trump said. He said the multinational agreement was not the right deal for the United States and that while “probably some of you in this room disagree … ultimately I’ll be proven to be right.”
The president seemed at ease in front of his CEO peers, calling out some by name, teasing that the first lady had to sell her Boeing stock once he took office and calling for Japanese automakers to make more of their cars in America. He promised that profits would soon rise on both sides of the Pacific once new agreements were struck.
Japan orchestrated a lavish formal welcome for the Trumps, complete with military honor guard and a traditional feeding of koi in a pond. Trump first tossed handfuls of feed into the pond before quickly dumping the entire box in a move that drew laughter from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson standing nearby.
Trump and his wife, Melania, earlier paid a formal state call on Japan’s Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, at the Imperial Palace.