WEST PALM BEACH - Despite frequent assurances that they continue to enjoy a warm friendship, U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over two days of talks apparently failed to bridge significant differences on major trade issues.
Trump declared his discussions with Abe “extremely productive,” but few details of success emerged during their joint news conference Wednesday.
“President Trump and I agreed to start talks for free, fair and reciprocal trade deals,” said Abe, without providing specifics.
Trump expressed his preference for a country-to-country “free trade agreement” between the United States and Japan, while Abe bluntly called for Washington to re-enter what was previously the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump pulled the United States from the comprehensive trade pact shortly after taking office.
Japan’s position is “TPP is the best for both of our countries,” Abe told reporters during the news conference at Trump's private resort on the Florida Atlantic coast.
Trump also did not lift steel and aluminum tariffs on Japan, despite previously giving other U.S. allies exemptions.
The second of two days of talks Wednesday was devoted to trade after the leaders played 18 holes of golf at one of the president’s nearby courses.
“Lunch was difficult,” said the president’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, in a frank admission of difficulty in the discussions on trade between U.S. and Japanese officials.
“Abe clearly deflected demands for a free trade agreement and bought more time, which is definitely a success for Japan,” according to Tobias Harris, who is vice president for Japan issues at Teneo Intelligence.
Abe was able to extract from Trump a commitment to raise the issue of Japanese abducted over decades by North Korean agents when the U.S. president meets with Kim Jong Un.
“We are deeply encouraged, Donald,” Abe said, expressing his gratitude for understanding on the issue that is highly emotional in Japan.
Trump also said “we’re negotiating now” to free three Americans held by North Korea, but he declined to say if their release was a precondition to him meeting with Kim.
Trump reiterated that he hopes to sit down with the North Korean leader by early June in what would be an unprecedented summit between the heads of the two governments, which have never established diplomatic relations.
“We will be doing everything possible to make it a worldwide success,” vowed Trump during Wednesday’s news conference.
WATCH: Trump, Abe Express Hope for Successful U.S.-North Korean Summit
But Trump warned: “If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we're not going to go,” adding, “I will respectfully leave the meeting” with Kim if it does not appear to be going well.
The U.S. president also said he agreed with Abe that maximum pressure would continue to be applied on Pyongyang until it gives up its nuclear weapons.
The Japanese prime minister said successful talks between Trump and Kim could lead to a normalization of ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
“We have no idea what will happen when Trump meets Kim, but Trump said the right things,” Harris told VOA.
Trump on Wednesday again praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for applying pressure on Pyongyang.
Analysts say a continued tough stance by Beijing will be critical for progress in getting North Korea to agree to denuclearization.
“The Chinese attitude toward North Korea has changed fundamentally because of the nuclear testing because of the danger to China, and the Chinese actually have had put pressure on the North economically,” said Dennis Wilder, a former National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs during the George W. Bush presidency.
“I think that the North understands that this administration really would take military action,” Wilder told VOA's Korean Service.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump confirmed that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, held a secret meeting in Pyongyang with Kim.
“He just left North Korea, had a great meeting with Kim Jong Un, and got along with him really well, really great,” Trump said.
Pompeo has been nominated by the president to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
“It’s rare for the intelligence community to get involved with diplomacy, and yet the intelligence channels of both South Korea and North Korea have been very active in managing this issue. So, in that sense, Pompeo is a logical choice,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA's Korean Service
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is to meet Kim on April 27. Officials in Seoul said theery are looking at the possibility of converting the 1953 armistice, which halted combat in the Korean War, to a peace treaty to formally end the conflict on the peninsula.
VOA Korean Service contributed to this report