Background Press Briefing by A Senior Administration Official on North Korea

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:35 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Good afternoon. So this morning, the President sent a letter to Kim Jong-un. And the President dictated every word of the letter himself. He told Kim Jong-un that, “I was very much looking forward to being there with you.” He said that, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.” And “therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.”

To understand the President’s decision, I think it’s important to review what’s transpired since March 8th. It was on March 8th that a delegation visiting from South Korea came to the White House to deliver a message from Kim Jong-un to President Trump. The message conveyed from Kim Jong-un was that Kim is committed to denuclearization. Kim pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. And Kim said he understood that routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States would continue.

Kim also expressed his desire to meet with President Trump as soon as possible. In light of all this, President Trump accepted Kim Jong-un’s offer to meet in person. Since that day when President Trump accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation, the United States has made significant efforts to prepare for their meeting, and we have done so in good faith.

But there has been a trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause. Last week, North Korea objected to a routine annual joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea. They called our exercises, quote, “provocative military disturbances,” and they canceled their meeting with the South Koreans. That constituted a broken promise.

On Secretary Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang, North Korea promised that the two sides would meet in Singapore last week to jointly work on logistical preparations for the summit. The White House sent its Deputy Chief of Staff, who leads White House planning in advance of presidential visits, and his advance team to Singapore. They waited, and they waited. The North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans didn’t tell us anything. They simply stood us up.

And today, to great fanfare, North Korea claims to have destroyed its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. And we certainly hope that that’s the case, but we really don’t know. What may be news to you is that Secretary Pompeo and the South Korean government were promised by the North Koreans that international experts and officials would be invited to witness and verify today’s demolition. But that promise was broken. Instead, journalists were invited, and we will not have forensic evidence that much was accomplished.

It’s possible that the tunnels were detonated in a way that will still allow them to be used in the future. And I think Ben Tracy of CBS News said it best. I just saw a report he filed. He said, quote, “The problem is, we’re journalists. We’re not nuclear experts. So there was no one on site, no outside expert, to verify that what North Korea claims it has done — closing its nuclear test site — has actually occurred.”

On the subject of communications between the United States and North Korea, I regret that the news has also been spotty. The United States has, over the past week, made numerous attempts to communicate with the North Koreans, but they have not responded.

In fact, the first communication that we’ve received in a week arrived last night in the form of a propaganda release in which the North Korean regime issued a statement threatening the United States to, quote, “Meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at [a] nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” The letter claimed that North Korea was a, quote, “nuclear weapons state.” And of course, the North Korean regime also singled out and attacked the Vice President of the United States.

So this strange lack of judgment, combined with the broken promises over the past weeks, and North Korea’s suspension of direct communication with the United States suggests a profound lack of good faith.

The President was always clear that he was prepared to walk away from this meeting, and he has kept his word.

The President, in his letter, showed that he remains upon to meeting Kim Jong-un someday. But the President’s overarching goal isn’t a meeting; it has always been the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And the President will never compromise the safety and security of the United States or our allies.

And with that, I’d be happy to take some questions.

Q Thanks. Can I just tick through three clarifications real quick? Number one, the President alluded to a dialogue between himself and Kim Jong-un. Did they speak personally? Did the two of them speak directly?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The two have communicated through diplomacy, through Secretary Pompeo, and the messages that the Secretary has carried.

Q So not directly, then? I just want to be crystal-clear.


Q Is Joe Hagin — are they still going for the planning meeting this weekend? Or is it off?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ve nothing to announce on that. That sounds a bit off.

Q And the last one is just, why didn’t we tell our allies before the President released the letter?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the President had constant communication with our allies. The President had President Moon here earlier this week, just a couple days ago. And President Trump was very forthright in sharing his skepticism about North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize; his skepticism about whether North Korea, in light of the things I just told you about, was even serious about going forward with the meeting. And asked President Moon’s advice.

He shared with President Moon his concern that a meeting may not be able to happen under these conditions. And we were in contact with the South Koreans and with the Japanese and Singapore this morning.


Q In the letter, it says, and I quote, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God that they will never have to be used.” It seems heavy-handed, but was there an indication from North Korea that they didn’t believe we had nuclear weapons or that, in some way, that they could take us on in a nuclear showdown?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the President — I think it was hard for anyone to miss the implicit threat in the North Korean propaganda statement last night about a nuclear showdown. And the President saw fit to remind North Korea of the real balance of power.

Q But to clarify — can I just clarify real — so it is ours — the government’s stance — our government’s stance that we believe that North Korea was trying to challenge us in a nuclear showdown?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You can interpret how you want what the North Koreans wrote.

Q I’m asking —

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But the President’s letter, I think, speaks pretty clearly for itself.


Q What conditions would the President need to see in order to have the summit back on, either on June 12th or in the future, especially given now that the North Koreans have shown that they will negotiate and act in bad faith, as you say?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. So we’d need to see, I guess, in some ways, the opposite of all of the things that I just described that have taken place over the past couple of weeks.


Q Two questions. One, what importance, if any, do you attach to John Bolton’s discussion of the Libya precedent and North Korea’s strong reaction to it?

And then, secondly, the President has twice alluded to the second meeting that Kim had with President Xi. What happened at that meeting that makes the President think that somehow North Korea’s tone changed afterwards?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. You know, I would refer all of you, actually, to take a look at the statement that a North Korean official put out a week ago. This was the 16 May statement. Because, if you look at it, what he was objecting to was not just a comment by any American official, he was objecting to a litany of things, including the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Peninsula.”

He was objecting to U.S. statements calling for the total decommissioning of nuclear weapons. He was objecting, in that statement, to comments about the importance of the unilateral nuclear abandonment on the part of North Korea.

So complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — it’s a mouthful, but it should be a familiar mouthful because that’s been U.S. policy going back to the George W. Bush administration. This has been our policy all along. So how can North Korea, a few weeks after, in an inter-Korean summit — how could it declare that it is moving forward with the goal of complete denuclearization, but object to denuclearization in a statement two weeks later? It’s a head-scratcher.

Q What about the Xi meeting?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look — I mean the President, as you alluded to, the President has made some public comments about his sense that after the second meeting between the Chinese and North Korean leaders, there was a shift in attitude. And we can only speculate as to exactly what was discussed or why that might be, but the shift in attitude did not go unnoticed by the President.


Q First off, can you clarify why this is a background briefing and why you can’t go on the record, especially given the gravity of the information?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think we — on the one hand, you have the President speaking today, now not only through this letter but also in his comments at the top of the bill signing. We’ll let the President’s remarks stand. Secretary Pompeo has been speaking today, as well. So we’re trying to give you a little context on a background basis.

Q And also, can you clarify how much closer we are today, or are we closer, to a military confrontation, after the events of the last couple days?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nothing to say in that respect. What I would like to highlight is the President’s comment today that our policy remains what it has been since the beginning of this administration, when we undertook a policy review in the first days after the President took office, and that is a policy of maximum pressure, and that is going to continue.

Sir, yeah.

Q Can you clarify that — the President obviously announced in the letter and at the top of the bill signing that the summit is called off. But then, later, he said it’s possible the existing summit could take place, or a summit at a later date. Is he saying that it’s possible that June 12th could still happen?


Q Or has that ship sailed, right?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that — the main point, I suppose, is that the ball is in North Korea’s court right now. And there’s really not a lot of time. We’ve lost quite a bit of time that we would need in order to — I mean, there’s been an enormous amount of preparation that’s gone on over the past few months at the White House, at State, and with other agencies and so forth. But there’s a certain amount of actual dialogue that needs to take place at the working level with your counterparts to ensure that the agenda is clear in the minds of those two leaders when they sit down to actually meet and talk and negotiate, and hopefully make a deal.

And June 12 is in 10 minutes, and it’s going to be — you know. But the President has said that he has — someday, that he looks forward to meeting with Kim.


Q Thank you very much. I think a negotiation with North Korea is very difficult; is not easy. But before the President wrote this letter, have you ever (inaudible) with South Korean Blue House?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I referred to the discussions that the President has been having, including this week, directly with President Moon. You know, the President was briefed by his staff last night on this statement when it came in. The President took it in stride and slept on it. And he gathered his national security team together this morning. He met with the Vice President. He met with the Chief of Staff. He met with — spoke with Secretary Pompeo and with John Bolton. And after considering it, he dictated this letter.

Ma’am. And then I’ll come to you.

Q I wanted to ask: Do you have assurances from China that they will continue to support sanctions — and from other folks who have taken on or embraced sanctions — do you have assurances that those will now continue? And what is the message for Iran, that Iran should take away from the President’s response to Kim now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, in terms of China — yes, we do have assurances. China helped co-author and passed unanimously, with the other Security Council members at the U.N., these U.N. Security Council resolutions that have all come into action over the course of 2017. So all countries, all U.N. members, must abide by those resolutions. And we’ll be watching closely to ensure that they do.

The Iranians can draw from this whatever they like. I think that the President’s policy on Iran has been quite clear. He’s made good on the promises he made as a candidate and in his first days of office. After carefully reviewing the JCPOA and the progress there, he made his decision recently on that front.


Q Two questions. One on South Korea and one on Vice President Pence. You talked about the constant communication and work with the South Koreans, and yet before President Moon arrived here, in route, his national security advisor placed a probability of the summit at 99.9 percent. That was just a day and a half ago. Okay? It seems like there is a disconnect in expectation there. That’s pretty significant.


Q Point one. So I’d like you to talk to us about that. And then, secondarily, could you give us a sense of how much the personal language, referring to the Vice President specifically, played into the President’s consultations last night and decision to cancel the summit?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. So when President Moon and President Trump had the opportunity to talk in depth about this, as I mentioned, we were able to convey to the South Koreans some things that they may not have been aware of in our own diplomacy and engagement with the North — some of the problems that we were encountering.

And I can’t speak to probabilities that people were assigning. I think that the South Koreans certainly were well-informed by the President at that lunch and in his one-on-one in the Oval about the growing skepticism about the direction that Kim is bringing this.

Q But taking your words at face value, there was disconnect as to what they were perceiving and what this administration was perceiving before that meeting.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there was hopefulness on the part of the South Koreans as well as on the part of the United States — hopefulness on the part of the President — that, in fact, this summit would take place and that it would be a success. For it to be a success, denuclearization has to be the end state. It has to be outcome that we would reach through the course of that dialogue and the process that would follow.

Q And the Pence aspect of this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, I can only say that that was one of several pretty odd judgment calls on the part of North Koreans officials, to attack the Vice President. And it wasn’t the only odd judgment call that was reflected in that letter. There was the talk about a nuclear showdown —

Q But particularly harmful in this context, it would appear?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It wasn’t helpful, I can tell you that.

Yes, ma’am.

Q Thank you so much. Just two quick clarifications and a question. You said you’ve been in contact with the Japanese and South Koreans this morning. Does that mean that the President himself directly called President Moon and Prime Minister Abe this morning?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. We had dialogue just below the President’s level.


Q Sorry. Sorry.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let’s stick to one each just so I can get to more of you, if you don’t mind. Please.

Q Thanks. With regards to the maximum pressure campaign, are there plans to impose additional sanctions on North Korea in the next few weeks now that the summit is off?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you know, our Treasury Department is constantly evaluating intelligence, as it comes in, to look for targets. That is, people who are — and companies, and entities, and ships that are violating U.S. law, as well the U.N. Security Council resolution. So that is a constant process. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge; it starts peeling as soon as you finish and so you have to keep a new coat of paint going just to maintain a certain level of pressure. And the goal here is to achieve maximum pressure. We’re still short of that.


Q Thank you. I wanted to ask you, based upon what the President put out in that letter, and also based upon what the President said earlier, he’s clearly open to the idea of meeting in the future with the North Korean leader. But going forward, from the administration’s perspective, why believe anything that the North Koreans have to say?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In part, we — the President wants to give every opportunity to a peaceful resolution of this crisis. The President wants to see North Korea fulfill its potential as a member of the community of nations, as a nation filled with resourceful, smart people who have suffered enormously under that ideology and under that system. The President wants to give every opportunity for the right outcome by North Korea, by its people, and by the United States and our allies. And so the President has been willing to keep the door open from the beginning to a dialogue process, and he continues to do so.


Q Why believe them, though? Why believe them? It’s a pretty simple, basic question. Why trust them? Why believe them? Really basic.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They don’t make it easy. I agree. (Laughs.)

Q So talk about the differences in the administration between those who believe that diplomacy can work and the hardliners who believe, as we were just discussing, that the North Koreans cannot be trusted, there have been deals before; they’ve broken every single deal. Why bother?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: For the reason I just stated. President Trump wants to see this resolved. He’s made a pledge to the American people to keep us safe from a nuclear threat that has been growing and gathering for now three decades in the hands of a rogue regime. And so President Trump is willing to pursue diplomacy as far as it can possibly be pursued.


Q Thank you. So in his letter, President Trump called the dialogue between him and Chairman Kim the only dialogue that matters. Normally, a summit like this would follow extensive preparations and talks at the ministerial level and so on, up and up and up, until getting to the point that the two heads of state would meet. And obviously, the President responded to Chairman Kim’s invitation. But that having not panned out, is there any effort or desire on the part of the administration to maybe do this the way that other summits like this would normally be done? Start at the bottom, and work up to a head-of-state meeting, as opposed to giving them the glory of that right away.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the format you just explained hasn’t resulted in a denuclearization of North Korea despite numerous agreements that have been made declaring that very end state agreed by both sides.

That said, there has been work going on, and some of the work to prepare for the summit was halted because we simply couldn’t get them to pick up the phone at a certain point. And so their radio silence precluded the opportunity to do some of that preparation work in advance of the two sitting down.

Last question. Ma’am.

Q Thank you. Could we go back for a second? I didn’t hear you respond to Mark’s question about Ambassador Bolton and how his past comments played a role in this. That’s something that the North Koreans have charged.

But also, can we clarify what you said before? Joe Hagin and other senior officials went to Singapore last week, and the North Koreans never showed up. They simply stood us up, you say. Why didn’t the United States cancel the summit at that point?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, I think that we’ve been willing to give the North Koreans every opportunity within reason to consummate this meeting between the two leaders. And it was one of several cuts that led to the President’s decision this morning to do that letter.

Yeah. Thanks very much.

Q Are you skeptical about it now?

MR. SHAH: You guys can pop up, and we’ll take questions from anybody over the course of the rest of the day.

Q Can we please have a word on American journalists who are still in North Korea?

Q The journalists who went to witness the denuclearization destruction of site.

Q Are we going to get the journalists back?

Q Ben Tracy — you cited Ben.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You guys have more info than I do on the reporters who are on the ground there. I’m just looking at some of the reports as I get them. Thank you.

END 3:59 P.M. EDT