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Trump told Abe he’s worried about Korea

June 14,2019
TOKYO - U.S. President Donald Trump told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their summit in April about his concerns that South Korea remains lukewarm on trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea and China, a Japanese government source told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday.

Trump and Abe held a summit in Washington on April 26. Before their summit, Trump met with President Moon Jae-in for a bilateral summit at the White House on April 11.

“During their meeting, Trump asked Abe why President Moon was passive about a trilateral cooperation. He asked Abe to explain the reason,” said the source. The question was posed while they were discussing East Asia affairs, including North Korean nuclear issues.

“Abe frankly gave his opinion in his answer to Trump,” the source said. “Trump, a businessman-turned-president, has some lack of understanding about Asia’s internal issues such as relations among Korea, China and Japan. He often asks related questions to Abe in a casual manner.”

According to the sources, Trump displayed his trust in Abe during the summit. “If Shinzo says yes, then it’s a yes for me too,” the source quoted Trump as saying during the summit, adding that the accompanying officials were surprised by this remark.

The source said the Japanese officials analyzed Trump’s questions to Abe and that some concluded that the U.S. leader was expressing displeasure toward Moon.

“In Northeast Asian affairs, the United States and Japan formed one side, while China, Russia and North Korea formed the opposite side,” he said. “And we wondered Trump was complaining to Abe, one of his best friends, about Korea’s lukewarm attitude on joining U.S.-Japan cooperation.”

He also said rumors spread in the Japanese government that Trump had discussed with Abe increasing the financial burden on Korea and Germany for stationing U.S. troops in their countries. Abe left for Iran on Wednesday to mediate the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. On Tuesday, Abe and Trump had a 20-minute phone conversation.

Meanwhile, the United States once again stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo ahead of Trump’s visit to Korea and Japan in two weeks. This was also seen as a warning that Washington wants to join hands with Seoul and Tokyo to contain Beijing.

The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the Group of 20 (G-20) Leaders’ Summit in Osaka, Japan. According to Morgan Ortagus, spokeswoman of the State Department, Pompeo will join Trump in a meeting with Abe on the sidelines of the summit to coordinate on the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and to discuss ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation with the Republic of Korea on our unified approach toward the [North] and other shared challenges.”

She also said Pompeo will accompany Trump to Korea after the G-20 summit to meet with Moon.

“The two leaders will also discuss ways to strengthen the United States-Republic of Korea alliance,” it said. “President Trump and President Moon will continue their close coordination on efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of the [North],” she said.

While she did not discuss the specific itinerary of Trump’s trip to Korea, speculation is high that the U.S. president will visit Korea for two days immediately after the G-20 summit.

Although Ortagus said the North’s denuclearization will be on the agenda at Trump’s meetings with Abe and Moon, experts said Washington is more interested in discussing “other shared challenges” because the meetings are more about China than North Korea.

“The United States was sending a message to Japan that trilateral cooperation is crucial because of China, so Japan must put in efforts to improve its ties with Korea,” said Prof. Kim Heung-kyu, director of the China Policy Institute at Ajou University. “To Korea, the United States is signaling that the U.S.-China conflict is serious, and Korea must make a wise choice.”

“As of now, North Korea is not the top priority for the United States,” said Lee Seong-hyon, the director of Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute. “Washington was stressing that cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo is important amid the U.S.-China confrontation, and the upcoming G-20 summit will be a critical juncture for Seoul.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Korea will create a strategic coordination assistance team to deal with the growing U.S.-China conflict. A director-level official will head the team, composed of seven officials.

“It is a contingency organization to handle strategically crucial issues,” said Kim In-chul, spokesman of the ministry, on Tuesday, without specifying the contingency.

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK, CHUN SU-JIN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]