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In Japan, Pence Talks Trade And North Korea's Threat To The Region


Vice President Mike Pence is traveling the Pacific Rim, where so much of President Trump's foreign policy agenda has been focused, especially with these tensions with North Korea. In Tokyo this morning, the vice president repeated what he had said the day before in South Korea.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The United States will continue to work with Japan and with all our allies in the region, including South Korea, to confront the most ominous threat posing this region of the world - the regime in North Korea.

GREENE: Of course, North Korea is not the only subject on the vice president's mind. And NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following the trip and joins us from Tokyo. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So trade is the other big issue here on this visit. The Trump administration, as we know, has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that was so prominent on the campaign trail. And they keep talking about, quote, "bilateral agreements." What is the point of stressing that word?

KUHN: The idea, David, is that the U.S. wants to renegotiate trade deals not with the whole region of Asia but with individual trading partners and that includes Japan. And Pence emphasized that they want a more level playing field, better terms of trade that gives American companies better access to the Japanese market, allows them to sell more products and create more jobs in the U.S.

GREENE: So is Japan open to this? Is there a way that they can get something out of a new deal with the United States?

KUHN: Well, you know, Japan feels that they worked so hard for so many years on the TPP. And they got a - what they thought was a pretty good deal. So basically they would like not to kill it off. They would like to keep the TPP alive with the other 11 countries, keep it in some form and then do a separate, perhaps, bilateral deal with the U.S. later.

But they are wary of any new deal that would challenge their protection of certain sectors, most importantly agriculture. Rice, as you can imagine, is a very politically symbolic industry in Japan.

GREENE: So interesting too because Shinzo Abe, the Japanese leader, the first leader to meet with Donald Trump, gave him a golden golf club, I mean, has really been trying to develop this relationship and probably hoping that he has some sort of leverage.

KUHN: That's right. But, you know, the relationship has changed a lot since President Trump or Trump back in the 1980s started railing against the imbalances in trade. You know, the Japanese economy has stagnated for more than two decades. And it's been eclipsed by China as the second largest economy.

And Japan is just not seen as the economic threat and competitor that it was. And at the same time, you know, the importance of Japanese-invested factories that create jobs in places like Indiana, where Mike Pence was governor before, have become very important.

Now, there are also new things. Japan wants to export more of its products like high-speed railways at a time when President Trump would like to build more infrastructure in the U.S. And also remember that in 2011 following the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster, Japan shut down its nuclear plants. So now Japan is a very good market for U.S. exports of oil and natural gas.

GREENE: So it almost sounds like Donald Trump had this line from the 1980s and maybe he's using the same line for a country that really has changed a lot?

KUHN: Yes, that's true in China as well. He blamed both countries for devaluing their currency when it hasn't been the case for quite awhile. Trump is still very concerned about keeping the yen on, you know, the yen weak to the dollar - I mean, excuse me, strong to the dollar so that Japanese exports don't flood the U.S. market.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn covering the vice president's trip to Japan, speaking to us from Tokyo. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.