WASHINGTON - Signaling solidarity, President Barack Obama and Japan's new prime minister said Friday that North Korea's recent nuclear provocations would not be tolerated and pledged to seek strong action against the isolated nation.
Following an Oval Office meeting, Obama said he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were united in their "determination to takes strong actions" in response to North Korea's nuclear test launch earlier this month.
Abe, speaking through a translator, said the two leaders have agreed to deal "resolutely" with North Korea.
"We just cannot tolerate the actions of North Korea, such as launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests," said Abe, adding that the two leaders also agreed to push for tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
Other regional tensions in Asia served as the backdrop for Friday's meetings, most notably Japan's dispute with China over the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands.
The dispute flared after Tokyo nationalized some of the islands in September. China also claims the tiny islands, which it calls Diaoyu. It has stepped up patrols into what Japan considers its territorial waters, heightening concern that a conflict could be sparked. The tensions highlight the rivalry between China, the world's second-largest economy, and Japan, which is the third.
Tokyo accused China last month of locking weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer and a helicopter, in what it viewed as a dangerous escalation. Beijing accused Tokyo of fabricating the reports to smear China.
The U.S. has treaty obligations to help Japan in the event of a conflict, obligations Abe said were a stabilizing factor in ensuring peace and stability in the region. He pledged that Japan would continue to deal with the China dispute in a calm manner.
Abe is the latest in a revolving door of Japanese prime ministers, underscoring the Asian nation's prolonged economic malaise. He is the fifth prime minister since Obama took office.
Friday's meeting was an opportunity for the U.S. to gauge Tokyo's intent to join negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regionwide free trade pact being pushed by Washington. Abe held back from such a commitment, which is opposed by most of his party and Japan's small but politically powerful farming lobby, at least until after key elections in July for the upper house.
In a joint statement following the meeting, the two leaders agreed to continue their talks about Japan's "possible interest" in joining the trade pact, known as the TPP. But they agreed that concerns remained, particularly with respect to the automotive and insurance sectors.
The newly elected Japanese leader is a nationalist and a keen advocate of stronger relations with Washington, which have assumed more importance for Tokyo. It has locked horns in recent months with emerging power China over the control of unoccupied islands in the resource-rich seas between them.
Abe, who arrived Thursday afternoon and will depart early Saturday, had been anxious for the meeting since a convincing election victory in December returned him to power for his second stint as prime minister. He had resigned for health reasons in 2007 after serving for one year.
The U.S. partnership with Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American forces, is an enduring one and a cornerstone of Washington's Asia policy, but establishing a personal rapport between leaders has been difficult.
Abe's market-pleasing moves to stimulate Japan's economy - dubbed 'Abenomics' - have fueled hope of a recovery and were expected to be featured in a policy speech he was to deliver at a Washington think tank Friday after his meeting and working lunch with Obama at the White House.