President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrive for a dinner at Ginza Ukai Tei restaurant on Nov. 5, 2017, in Tokyo. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photoo
TOKYO — President Donald Trump eased into his 12-day sprint through Asia with a round of golf and a private dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of his closest allies on the international stage.
But the seemingly carefree start to his five-country tour belied the sky-high stakes of the trip. With the threat of North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program looming, the grueling swing through the region — the longest trip since Trump took office — will likely be a defining moment for the president.
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The White House’s top priority for the trip is to ratchet up pressure on Asian nations to denuclearize North Korea. But the administration is also under pressure to confront a series of other challenges, including China’s unrelenting dominance of the continent and Trump’s desire to challenge what he deems unfair trade practices.
During his first public remarks upon arriving in Japan on Sunday, Trump didn’t mention North Korea by name — and he largely eschewed the bellicose rhetoric of his September speech at the United Nations, where he threatened to “totally destroy” the rogue nation.
But he nonetheless sent a tacit signal that he was prepared to act, telling hundreds of U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base, “No one — no dictator, no regime, and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve. Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them, was it?”
He added later, “You are the greatest threat to tyrants and dictators who seek to prey on the innocent.”
Trump administration officials didn’t mince words about the president’s goals for the trip.
“The president’s strategy — and this strategy is in complete alignment with our allies: South Korea and Japan and increasingly the entire world — is to maximize pressure,” a senior administration official said. “It’s a diplomatic and economic campaign to maximize pressure on North Korea to convince the leadership in North Korea that the one way out for them is to start reducing the threat and to move toward denuclearization.”
The official signaled that the administration is likely to make an announcement about whether it will name North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terrorism. The administration will be making a decision on the issue “very soon,” the official said. Asked whether it will come during Trump’s trip, the official added, “stay tuned.”
The United States designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in 1988, in response to the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, and rescinded the label in 2008, as part of an agreement for Pyongyang to curb its nuclear program.
Trump seemed to bask in the adoration of the U.S. troops in Japan who cheered and whooped throughout his remarks. And he jumped at the opportunity to golf with Abe and Hideki Matsuyama, a Japanese professional golfer.
The administration official said the trio played nine holes, adding that they did not keep score.
Trump, Abe and their wives then dined on Sunday night at Ginza Ukai Tei, a pricey Japanese restaurant that features a $255 tasting menu on its website.
Before the dinner, Trump again touted his relationship with Abe.
“The relationship is pretty extraordinary,” he said. “We like each other and our countries like each other. I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Japan than we are right now.”
Trump and Abe have built a warm rapport in recent months. Trump hosted Abe at his Mar-a-Lago club in February and the two leaders regularly speak on the phone. “The closeness of the relationship is unprecedented,” the official said.
Trump will hold more meetings with Abe on Monday. Topics of conversation will include North Korea, cybersecurity and economic issues, administration officials said.
Despite the Trump-Abe love fest, the president will have to navigate much more complicated dynamics during the remainder of his trip.
Though Trump has publicly lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two men do not see eye to eye on trade and North Korea. China has supported efforts to impose sanctions on North Korea, but the country has also cautioned against rhetoric that could escalate the crisis on the peninsula. China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner.
China has also bristled at Trump’s desire to impose a wide-ranging trade crackdown, though the president has not yet followed through on the most hardline proposals within his administration to impose harsh tariffs on Chinese exports.
The Trump administration is also increasingly calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” language that some experts see as an effort to minimize China’s influence by focusing on other countries in the region like India.
The president is expected to huddle with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. The official said North Korea will be “a primary topic of conversation” when the two leaders meet.