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Japan's Shinzo Abe Travels To U.S. Amid Scandals At Home


Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will meet President Trump today. They talk, not for the first time, at Mar-a-Lago, the resort that President Trump owns and frequently visits. Abe has a purpose here - he wants to make sure that Japan's concerns are understood as President Trump attempts diplomacy with neighboring North Korea. But the Japanese leader may also be glad just to get a break from the news at home. NPR's Elise Hu covers Japan for us. Hey there, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: What's wrong at home for Shinzo Abe?

HU: A few cronyism scandals, and the details are rather arcane, but they involve discounted government land deals for Abe's conservative friends. Part of this already erupted last year, and Abe survived it. But in recent weeks, leaks have come out showing that government officials with ties to Abe have tampered with public documents related to these land sales and that has really shaken public trust. Fifty-thousand Japanese demonstrated in cities over the weekend calling for Abe's resignation. One poll has approval of Abe's Cabinet down to less than 27 percent. That is the lowest in his current run as Japanese leader.

INSKEEP: You know, this is classic old-time politics. There was a famous politician here in New York City where I am who once called it honest graft when you just happen to see your opportunities and you're close to the government and you buy some land cheap and sell it at a different price. But I guess people don't accept that so much anymore.

HU: Certainly not tampering with government documents, too, so that's kind of the big problem right now.

INSKEEP: OK. So that is the problem at home, but Shinzo Abe is thinking about matters abroad. He'll be talking with President Trump. And, of course, President Trump is in the middle of an effort to have a meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. What's Shinzo Abe think of all this?

HU: Well, at first, Japan was really blindsided when Trump just suddenly agreed to talk with Kim Jong Un without preconditions because Japan had been supportive of preconditions. But the country's government is now going along and is even offering and saying that it too could summit with Kim Jong Un. But the biggest worry for Japan is that these talks will lead to essentially a tacit acceptance of North Korea having nuclear weapons. And that's a huge deal since North Korea is next door to Japan.

Abe is also going to push for Trump to bring up the return of Japanese abductees. These are Japanese citizens that North Koreans kidnapped from beaches and other coastal areas in the 1960s and '70s and took to North Korea in order to help train its North Korean spies. This is a huge issue for Abe, and he's staked a lot of political campaigns and his political leverage on it.

INSKEEP: Now, a reminder that the United States is worried almost exclusively about North Korea's nuclear program, but Japan has other concerns as well.

HU: That's right.

INSKEEP: And I want to ask about this, Elise, because Japan, of course, is a huge trading partner with the United States, and President Trump has criticized Japan, just as he has other countries, over a trade deficit.

HU: That's right. And Japan has really taken a hard hit on trade because it was slapped with those tariffs on steel and aluminum. But unlike other allies like South Korea, it didn't get an exemption. It's also been accused by the president again and again of hitting us hard on trade over the years, which is what a latest Trump tweet said. So Abe is expected to encourage Trump to not only support free trade but also rethink the pullout of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan and the U.S. were key players in.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Elise Hu. Elise, thanks.

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

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.