Via Teleconference

5:33 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi. Good afternoon everyone, and thanks very much for joining us on short notice.  Today’s call is going to be on background, attributed to “senior administration officials.”  And the contents of this call are going to be embargoed until its conclusion. 

Our speakers today are going to be [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].  I’ll turn it over to our speakers for opening remarks, and then we’re happy to take a few questions. 

[Senior administration official], why don’t you start us off.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Thanks.  Hi everybody.  We wanted to give an update on what has been and will continue to be an intensive period for Indo-Pacific diplomacy. 

As you all know, the President hosted a head of state Quad that was quickly followed by our Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State participating in two-plus-two dialogues in Japan and Korea, and then two days of meetings in Anchorage between U.S. and Chinese officials. 

And we wanted to take a few minutes to update you on where things stand, particularly on North Korea, which was featured in all of those conversations.  We also have some additional upcoming engagements on these issues I have tell you about as well.  Relatedly, we’re also aware of military activity last weekend by the DPRK that is not sanctioned under U.N. Security Council resolutions restricting the ballistic missile program. 

While we take all of its military activity seriously and will continue to consult closely on this with partners and allies, we see this action in the category of normal activity — most normal military activity by the North.  North Korea has a familiar menu of provocations when it wants to send a message to a U.S. administration: ballistic missiles of various range, mobile and submarine launch platforms, nuclear and thermonuclear tests.  Experts rightly recognized what took place last weekend as falling on the low end of that spectrum. 

On a related note, many of you have asked about the status of our North Korea policy review.  We’re in the final stages of that review, and next week plan to host the national security advisors of Japan and the Republic of Korea to discuss the outcomes and other issues.  This is the first time that we will have convened the trilat at this level.  And these will be among the most senior foreign officials to visit Washington since the start of the Biden administration.  We look forward to a robust discussion on a wide range of issues on how the U.S., Japan, and South Korea can deepen our trilateral cooperation. 

And I want to turn it over to my colleague for more details.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  And thanks, guys, for all your patience and joining us today. 

So let me just say that we’ve been working intensively since the beginning of the administration — actually, during the transition on thinking about next steps with regard to diplomacy or engagement on the Korean Peninsula. 

We’ve consulted broadly throughout the interagency.  We’ve engaged deeply with our allies.  We’ve also had a series of conversations with Trump administration officials to get their sense of how their diplomacy with North Korea worked out over the last four years.  And we’ve been in touch with virtually every individual who’s been involved in diplomacy with North Korea since the mid-1990s.  So this has been an extraordinarily thorough process, and we’re nearing the conclusion of putting together our approach for North Korea. 

And the next step for us will be, as [senior administration official] indicated, National Security Advisor Sullivan hosting his colleagues next week — at the end of next week for intensive consultations on the way ahead.  I think we recognize that, you know, we are stronger if we approach these challenging issues in North Korea in partnership with Japan and South Korea. 

I do just want to underscore here, quickly, before we get to questions: We are no — under no illusions about the difficulty this task presents to us.  We have a long history of disappointment in diplomacy with North Korea.  It’s defied expectations of Republican and Democratic administrations alike.  We’ve had working groups.  We’ve tried it at the highest levels, at the head of state.  And all the while, we’ve seen North Korea proceed ahead accordingly. 

The situation is also more challenging in Northeast Asia.  You’ve got more tensions between Japan and South Korea, and, of course, U.S.-China relations are heading into a complex period.  All of those reasons underscore why the United States engaging effectively, with respect to the North Korean challenge, is so important as we go forward. 

Why don’t we stop here?  We’re happy to take questions. 

I do just want to underscore very quickly a point that I think [senior administration official] made effectively.  My colleague and I and others — we’ve been in administrations where the North Koreans have really tested with provocative actions: nuclear tests, long-range systems.  I would say, generally speaking, what we saw this weekend does not fall in that category.

Q    Can you hear me okay? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Demetri.  I can hear you fine.  Thank you.

Q    Great.  Thank you.  Two quick questions.  Can you just explain exactly what North Korea did over the weekend? 

And the second: While in the Alaska summit, did the Chinese have any concrete suggestions for dealing with North Korea, either bilaterally or in a more multilateral framework?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, look, I’ll let [senior administration official] touch base on this further, Demetri.  But I don’t — there are some issues on classification which we can’t get into. 

I can underscore for you: This is a short-range system.  And as [senior administration official] indicated, it is not covered by U.N. Security Council resolutions.  And because, Demetri, you know those well — almost every kind of activity — missile, nuclear activity — is covered by U.N. Security Council resolutions.  And so, because this does not, it probably gives you an indication of where it falls on the spectrum of concern. 

Secondly, yes, we did discuss North Korea.  I think the North Korean — the Chinese position is to support diplomacy.  And they, I think, were curious about where we stood on our review.  We’ve said we were in the process of concluding that effort.  And then, of course, we will be engaging in debriefing China on our results and our proposed way forward in due course.  But our first step will be to engage our allies and friends in the process.

Q    Hello.  I was wondering, on the activity over the weekend: How many missiles did you assess that they fired?  And when exactly where they sent?  What was it on Sunday — if you could give us a day? 

I’m also curious why the U.S. and others, like South Korea and Japan, haven’t mentioned it in real time.  Is that to not give North Korea publicity? 

And if you could explain how the U.S. came to assess that this happened.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So again, I think, as [senior administration official] said, we’re — there are some specifics as to what exactly occurred that we are not yet authorized to get into in detail because they come from intelligence.  So, unfortunately — I know it’s unsatisfying — we’re probably not going to be able to go beyond the details that have been provided as to sort of the specifics of the incident.

[Senior administration official], I don’t know if you want to speak to the other questions or I’m happy to —

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so — so let me just say this, that it would be hard to find a place on the planet where there is more vigilance than the circumstances and situation surrounding North Korea.  Our forces are always prepared; they’re always on high alert. 

It is common practice for North Korea to test various systems, and they also maintain relatively high readiness.  We do not publicly respond to every kind of test. 

What I think — what [senior administration official] and I are trying to underscore for you is that this is a system that is not covered by U.N. Security Council resolutions.  It is a normal part of the kind of testing that North Korea would do. 

We do not believe that it is in our best interest to hype these things in circumstances in which we would consider those activities as part of a normal — quote, quote, “normal” — set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean Peninsula.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I guess I’d only add that we don’t want to speak for our partners and allies — to their assessment, but I think their posture, related to the events of this weekend, suggest that they see this the same way that we do.

Q    Hey, there.  Thank you for doing the call.  Do you see any value in suspending military exercises in the region or easing some sanctions on North Korea to try to bring them to the table?  And have you made any further effort toward direct conversations with them recently? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Do you want to go ahead?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Do you want — yeah, sure, I’ll take that.  So, look, you know, we think, you know, the hope of diplomacy really rests on the reality of deterrence and our forward-deployed capabilities.  And so, we thought that some of the efforts that were taken previously to turn off necessary exercises and the like were actually antithetical to our position as the keeper and the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. 

So I do believe that the United States is going to prepare to put a position out there for how to go forward with an engagement with North Korea.  But I think we’re going to do that on a principled basis.  And I’m not going to get into steps that we might take the — to lure North Korea in.  We believe that this kind of diplomacy is in everyone’s interests, including North Koreans. 

On the — what was your second question?  I’m sorry, sir.  I apologize.

Q    Oh, whether it’s a value to — well, you mentioned it: direct conversations.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  “Have we done further.”  I know you’ll respect this and understand this.  I will say that, you know, the content of our diplomacy with North Korea we tend, at this juncture, to keep between us directly.  I will underscore that we have taken efforts and we will continue to take efforts.  And we believe that that such diplomacy — in close coordination with South Korea and Japan and, frankly, with China — is in the best interests of all those concerned.  We don’t want a situation where it’s perceived that our door is not open to talk.

Q    Hi.  Thanks.  A couple of quick questions.  I might have missed this, but who exactly will Sullivan be hosting in this meeting coming up?

Second, to follow on my colleague’s question: You say that, you know, you don’t want to talk about your discussions with North Korea, but can you just confirm that there is any kind of contact with North Korea?  Because, you know, we were hearing for a long time that they were ignoring your calls. 

And then, finally, you mentioned talking to Trump administration people and others.  Can you tell us anything that you’ve actually learned from them — one or two things you’ve learned from them that you think will help you in — in your future negotiations?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I can start at that, [senior administration official], if you’d like, if that’s okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Either way.  Yeah, go ahead.  

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so let me start with the last one, and then I’ll just go forward. 

So, look, I think it would be fair to say, under Jake and Jon’s leadership, there was broad encouragement to reach out to learn as much as possible about every element of diplomacy that under- — was undertaken over the course the last couple of years.  And in that process, we had deep conversations with senior officials at the White House and the State Department about the diplomacy that took place both in Singapore and Vietnam and surrounding engagements.  And we had discussions at the highest levels around — and we learned quite a bit about, you know, what took place in some private sessions and the like.

I think what we learned that was most relevant for the current circumstances is that since the President — President Trump — departed Vietnam — you know, it’s over a year ago now — there has been actually very little dialogue or interaction between the United States and North Korea.  And, you know, some of our interlocutors had some views about that.  Some believe that this was a result of COVID and a reevaluation inside North Korea. 

All I can tell you is that we are on our forward foot, in terms of wanting to clearly signal that we are prepared for continuing engagement in Northeast Asia with key partners and indeed with North Korea. 

So that’s the — that’s the second question. 

And, by the way, those consultations were polite, respectful.  And I think [senior administration official] would underscore they were very helpful for us.  They helped us understand what some of the contours and challenges that they faced — and I think we’ve taken full account of what we’ve learned as we put together our current approach more generally. 

And then — I’m sorry.  [Redacted.]  What’s the — what was the first question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think it was just that — who is Jake hosting and —

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  — would be the national security advisors of Korea and Japan.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, the national — national security advisors of Korea and Japan.  Now, both of these — Korea has a longstanding national security advisor that serves President Moon, and Japan has a relatively recently established National Security Council.

And his counterparts, Kitamura-san and Suh Hoon, will be coming to the United States for about a daylong meeting.  In those meetings, Mr. Sullivan will have a trilateral session, but also two bilateral engagements as well, in which we’ll review, as [senior administration official] indicated, all the issues of critical concern.  We’ll debrief them on our — on the — what we — what are the central findings on the way ahead.  We’ll try to strategize about how best we can coordinate going forward.  We’ll listen to their views.  And, you know, each of them have their own perspectives on key issues. 

You will note that, for instance, the Japanese Prime Minister is very focused on abductees and South Korea is keenly interested in what might be possible on the economic front.  Of course, we’ll listen to those carefully and take those into account.  We’ve already had serious discussions, but now we’ll give them kind of where we think we’re headed. 

We’ll also talk about bilateral issues between two — you know, the — Secretary Blinken was just in South Korea and in Japan.  There are bilateral issues of critical importance: stepped up maritime activities in disputed areas.  And I think we will do what we can, to be perfectly honest, to try to improve communications between Seoul and Tokyo because we believe a strong working relationship between Japan and South Korea is in the clear national security interests of the United States.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The only thing I’d add to [senior administration official]’s laydown — all which I agree with — is that the outreach from us to North Korea that he described follows over a year, across two administrations now, without active dialogue with North Korea, despite multiple attempts by the U.S. — again, across two administrations — to engage.  And we do not see the activity that took place this weekend as closing that door.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  All right.  Thanks, everyone, very much for joining us, again, on short notice.  With the conclusion of this call, the embargo is lifted.  And friendly reminder that the call is on background, attributed to “senior administration officials.” 

Thank you all.

5:51 P.M. EDT

Stay Connected

We'll be in touch with the latest information on how President Biden and his administration are working for the American people, as well as ways you can get involved and help our country build back better.

Scroll to Top
Top