President Donald Trump refused to back away from his positive assessment of North Korea on Monday, saying he wasn’t “personally bothered” by the regime’s recent short-range missile tests despite the contradictory views of his Japanese hosts and his own national security adviser.
It was a notable break in the aggressive display of camaraderie that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe orchestrated for Trump during his state visit in Tokyo, which began with golf and a sumo tournament and continued Monday with a formal visit to Japan’s new Emperor and empress.
The show of unity was meant to solidify the US-Japan alliance – and at a press conference Monday, Abe insisted he and Trump were exactly aligned on the threat from Pyongyang.
Yet moments later, Trump’s answer to a question about the missile tests revealed a different reality. He said he did not believe the short-range launches violated United Nations resolutions – the view held by Japan.
“My people think it could have been a violation, as you know. I view it differently,” Trump said. “I view it as a man, perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn’t matter.”
By “his people,” Trump was referring to his national security adviser John Bolton, who told reporters in a briefing over the weekend that the missile tests did violate UN resolutions. Trump has grown agitated with his hawkish adviser in recent weeks, chafing at the impression he’s being led toward war in Iran and Venezuela by an underling.
Still, when asked by CNN’s Pamela Brown as he departed the press conference, Trump said he had confidence in Bolton.
The President said he was willing to give Kim more opportunities to strike an agreement on abandoning his country’s nuclear program. And he did not back away from his assessment, made earlier on Twitter, that North Korea was correct in questioning former vice president Joe Biden’s intelligence.
“Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low IQ individual. He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that,” Trump said, another startling example of the US President siding with the violent authoritarian and swiping at his political rivals – this time on foreign soil.
His answers on North Korea came minutes after hearing from family members of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea decades ago. Abe has promised to press their case with Kim during his own summit meeting, and said Trump vowed to help arrange that encounter during their talks.
Part of the reason Abe is so intent on securing a friend in Trump is Japan’s reliance on the US in security matters – particularly North Korea. Japan views any missile test as a threat, and Abe has made that case in more than 40 phone calls and meetings over the past two years.
Yet on North Korea and trade issues, the payoff for Abe’s efforts has sometimes been difficult to discern. Trump this week maintained a bullish stance on reorienting the US trade relationship with Japan, insisting the $68 billion trade deficit be reduced. He’s ignored Abe’s pleas to remove tariffs on steel and aluminum, though he did delay new auto tariffs for six months while a deal is worked out.
He said this week that real work on a new trade agreement would not begin until after Japanese parliamentary elections in July, and added on Monday that an announcement would likely be made in August.
He sounded less optimistic on a trade accord with China, which remains in a tit-for-tat tariff war with the US after talks broke down earlier this month.
“We’re not ready to make a deal,” Trump said in Tokyo, before casting an optimistic view of an eventual resolution.
“I think we will have a deal with China sometime into the future,” Trump said
This week’s state visit was meant as an extension of Trump and Abe’s friendship, coming with the trappings of ceremony that Trump is known to relish.
After a day of casual diplomatic male bonding – which including golf, sumo and a hibachi dinner – Monday’s events were more stately and formal.
In a sunny outdoor ceremony at the Imperial Palace, Trump shook hands with Emperor Naruhito and his wife, engaging warmly as he became the first foreign leader to meet the new monarch .
“How are you? Thank you very much,” Trump mouthed as he approached the Emperor and empress, who were both educated at Western universities and speak English.
Later, Trump stood alone on a podium to review a cordon of Japanese troops and greeted yellow-hatted children waving flags – an honor in keeping with the royal family’s traditions.
The White House said the two couples exchanged gifts: a viola and sheet music from Trump to the Emperor, who plays the instrument, and a desk set carved from a tree in Harvard Yard for the empress, who went to school there.
Emperor Naruhito assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne earlier this month. Oxford-educated with an academic interest in waterways, the 59-year-old is ushering in the Reiwa era in Japan, a historic moment for the world’s oldest monarchy.
The US-drafted Japanese constitution stripped the Japanese emperor of any political power after World War II. But the monarch holds a powerful symbolic role in a country deeply rooted in tradition.
President Barack Obama drew criticism when he performed a deep bow to Emperor Akihito, a show of deference his political opponents decried as unseemly for a US leader. When Trump met Akihito in 2017, he offered a nod and a handshake instead – and he repeated that Monday as he greeted Akihito’s son.
It’s customary for Japanese guests not to touch the royal couple, but the practice is common for visiting foreign leaders.
Unlike other royal families, the Japanese emperor can only be a man. When female members of the royal family get married, they are forced to give up their titles and become commoners. Naruhito’s wife, Empress Masako, began a career as a diplomat before marrying into the royal family.