PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday gave his blessing for North and South Korea to discuss ending their decadeslong war and said that without his help, the two countries "wouldn't be discussing anything."
At Mar-a-Lago with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump confirmed that the two Koreas are negotiating an end to hostilities ahead of a meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week. The meeting will be the third inter-Korean summit since the Koreas' 1945 division.
"They do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war," said Trump, who welcomed Abe to his Florida resort on Tuesday.
Trump is looking to hold his own summit with Kim in the next two months and said five locations are under consideration. The president made the surprising announcement weeks ago that he had accepted an invitation to sit down with Kim following months of increasingly heated rhetoric over the North's nuclear weapons program.
On Tuesday, Abe praised Trump for his bravery for agreeing to meet with Kim.
"I'd like to commend Donald's courage in his decision to have the upcoming summit meeting with the North Korean leader," said Abe, who has voiced fears that short- and medium-range missiles that pose a threat to Japan might not be part of the U.S. negotiations.
Trump took credit for the inter-Korean talks, saying, "Without us and without me, in particular, I guess you would have to say, they wouldn't be discussing anything."
North Korea has long sought a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. It is unusual for the North to seek to broach the issue directly with South Korea rather than with Washington itself. The armistice that ended the fighting was signed by the United Nations Command — the U.S.-led forces in the conflict — North Korea and China. South Korea was a member of the U.N. Command but was not a direct signatory.
The U.S. has traditionally sought to resolve the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons program before addressing the North's demands for a peace treaty, which the isolated, authoritarian nation views as a means to ensuring its security. The U.S. retains nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression. The leaders of the two Koreas are due to meet April 27 on the southern side of the tense, demilitarized zone that separates them.
The Abe summit will serve as a test of whether the fond personal relationship the two leaders have forged on the golf course and over meetings and phone calls has chilled following Trump's recent moves, including his decision not to exempt Japan from new steel and aluminum tariffs.
White House officials suggested that Trump was open to acceding to Abe's hopes to obtain a waiver to the protectionist measure, which went into effect last month. Most other key U.S. allies, including Australia, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico, have been granted exemptions.
Issuing Japan the waiver to the Trump-ordered sanctions or opening negotiations on a new trade agreement with Japan are "all on the table," Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said Tuesday. "That's why this is such an important meeting."
The official visit began Tuesday afternoon as an honor cordon of uniformed service-members lined the palm-fringed drive to the club. Trump greeted Abe at the red-carpeted door of the mansion as the pair posed for photos ahead of a planned one-on-one meeting. It will be followed by a small group discussion with top national security officials focused on the Kim summit. The president and first lady Melania Trump will also have dinner with Abe and his wife.
Trump welcomed the two days of meetings at his Mar-a-Lago club. "It's an honor to have you in Florida with us," Trump said.
On Wednesday, the agenda will broaden to include other issues affecting the Indo-Pacific region, including trade and energy, and Trump said he and Abe would "sneak out" to play a round of golf. Trump and Abe will also hold a news conference before the president and first lady host the Japanese delegations for dinner. Abe will return to Japan on Thursday morning.
The first time Trump hosted Abe at Mar-a-Lago shortly after the inauguration, North Korea conducted its first missile test of Trump's administration, and the two delivered a joint statement denouncing the launch.
Abe will be seeking reassurance from Trump that security threats to Japan won't be overlooked in the U.S.-North Korea summit.
"I don't think that Prime Minister Abe will leave Mar-a-Lago with anything other than a high degree of confidence in the health of the alliance, including as we go into the summit with the North Koreans," said Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs.
Both sides insist that Trump and Abe remain close. U.S. officials stressed that Trump has met with Abe more than any other world leader and say they've been in "constant contact" since Trump accepted Kim's invitation.
Abe is also expected to push the issue of Japanese abductees, one of his top policy priorities. Pyongyang has acknowledging abducting 13 Japanese, while Tokyo maintains North Korea abducted 17. Five have been returned to Japan. North Korea says eight others died and denies the remaining four entered its territory. Japan has demanded further investigation.
Shimada said Abe would make the case to Trump that releasing the abductees could help North Korea prove they can be trusted to negotiate in good faith.
The U.S. itself is pushing for the release of three Americans.
After five years in office, Abe is one of Japan's longest-serving, post-World War II prime ministers but has suffered plummeting poll ratings over allegations that a school linked to his wife received preferential government treatment in a land sale.