Aboard Air Force One
En Route Beijing, China
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So just briefly, I’ll leave plenty of time for you to ask some questions. We just wrapped up the first state visit by an American President to South Korea in a quarter century; first speech before the National Assembly in roughly the same time period.
I think it was a historic speech. We’ve not seen a speech that went into such great depth about the nature of the North Korean regime; that focused on the human rights abuses of North Korea; that talked about, really, the international obligation to confront and deal with this threat by North Korea, because it’s a threat not only to the United States and South Korea and Japan, but also to regional stability and, ultimately, to global stability because of the weapons that they’re actively producing.
So a couple of things out of that, just to highlight, related to the overall visit: The two Presidents, both President Moon and President Trump, reaffirmed their full support and commitment to this coordinated global pressure campaign to bring North Korea back to authentic denuclearization talks.
We also had a commitment by the President to use the full range of U.S. military capabilities to defend South Korea and Japan and, of course, the United States itself against North Korea’s capabilities.
The President also talked about the fact that there is a brighter path that North Korea can walk if it begins walking down the path toward denuclearization. I think that, in his speech, he made very clear that, contrary to some of the armchair analysis that you’re reading, these weapons that they’re producing are putting the North Korean regime in greater danger. They are not making it safer.
And that’s because there is a growing recognition of both the nature of North Korea’s regime and what it seeks to accomplish — in other words, what are the intentions of the North Korean regime. And if we take them at their own word, these weapons are designed to blackmail the United States and our allies; they are designed to blackmail us into lifting sanctions, and into, ultimately, dissolving the alliance, getting American troops off of the Peninsula, and into eventually reunifying the South with the North under the North Korean regime.
So President Trump sent a very clear message that that is not ever going to happen under our watch. He sent a very clear message about the history of aggression. I think it was a useful history lesson, probably, for the South Korean public and the American public to hear about the hundreds of attacks that North Korea has perpetrated against Americans and against South Koreans over the decades.
And the United States, as the President said, is concerned that North Korea may have interpreted past restraint, on the part of the United States, for weakness. And he said that would be a fatal mistake.
So a pretty clear message, I think, for the North Korean regime in terms of our resolve but also in terms of the availability of a brighter path so that this, sort of, horrific, as he put it, laboratory experiment can end. One in which North Korea and South Korea, brothers separated at birth — what you’ve ended up with is a deplorable prison state in the North and one of the most successful and wealthy countries in the world in the South. So all of those are things that we want to highlight.
Q What would it take to have authentic talks with the North Koreans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President made clear that reducing the threats, ending provocations, and moving towards sincere steps to ultimately denuclearize. And I think that North Korea has shown that, really, they are the ones that are putting forward preconditions. They are the ones who have been saying they’re unwilling to talk about nuclear weapons; that that’s not on the table. That’s a nonstarter for us.
Q Among these armchair analysts you refer to, some people read into this speech the President laying down a, sort of, new condition for talks — sort of a sense of some verifiable denuclearization before we can have these talks. Was that intentional or is that a misreading of what the President said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, the President’s words stand. He does not believe that any deal can be ultimately achieved that does not allow for verification. So a movement toward denuclearization — ultimate denuclearization — but it has to verifiable.
We’ve had too many cases, as he spoke about in the speech — he gave a quick history of all of the good-faith efforts that the United States and other countries, including China and Russia, Japan, South Korea have engaged in with the North. It is a very disappointing history of failure on the part of direct diplomacy with North Korea.
The agreed framework — I mean, every administration going back to George H.W. Bush, successively, have reached some kind of an agreement that the North has then gone back on and begun cheating on. And of course, that’s just bought them time to continue building these kind of capabilities to the point where they now threaten U.S. cities, in addition to the cities in South Korea and Japan and elsewhere.
Q Any plans to do a state sponsor of terror designation? And if so, can you explain the ramifications of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Secretary Tillerson is on the plane. Maybe I can pull him forward but —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll weigh in, too. The President said he would make a determination at the end of the trip, too. So he said I believe it was yesterday or at some point in the last couple of days, yeah, that he’d make a determination at the end of the trip.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And as for the ramifications, I’ll refer you to State as to what that entails. But, of course, they were designated as a state sponsor of terror. It was one of the things that a previous administration lifted that designation as part of a hopeful attempt to lure them into reversing the threat. And, of course, that didn’t work out.
So I’d remind that they clearly fit the criteria for a state sponsor of terror in a previous administration.
Q You mentioned part of his speech today was imploring Russia and China to do their parts. Should we expect the President should make that message person-to-person with President Xi in Beijing in the next couple days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly. Yes. I think the President has been clear that that is at the top of the agenda, along with the severe imbalances in the U.S.-China economic relationship. Not just the trade deficit, but, really, the grossly un-level playing field, forced technology transfers for American companies, and much more. So North Korea will be high on the agenda.
Q You keep saying that they need to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions. What exactly are the Chinese not doing that they should be doing under those resolutions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that if you look at the activity across that border, certainly there is still some trade taking place. There is still some financial links that exist that should not under those resolutions.
And of course, China is doing much more than it’s ever done in the past, but it’s not the time for complacency or for allowing people to slip through loopholes and for a lot of that residual activity to continue. We know that some of that activity is continuing, and we’re going to work closely with the Chinese to identify that activity and end it.
Q Does the administration have any indication that North Korea is open to this brighter path that you’ve outlined?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wish I could say that was the case. I think that our administration has made clear from the start that the door is open to dialogue and efforts to sort of probe have been rather discouraging.
We know that, of course, the South Korean government tried over the summer just to do some very simple, rudimentary discussions — you know, to conduct some discussions with the North on things like maintaining a hotline to avoid a military crisis. And of course, the North didn’t really return those phone calls. They have shown very little sign that they’re interested in talking.
And if you go back further and you really look at sort of the history — China, for many years, tried to persuade the current leader’s father, Kim Jong-il of the benefits of reform and opening like that that China undertook under Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform and opening.
They brought Kim Jong-il to China six times, I believe, in the late ’90s, early 2000s. Every time the North Korean leader returned home, it did virtually nothing. And we can’t really explain it other than to speculate that perhaps they fear that reform and opening would actually be tantamount to regime change in their own minds.
So it doesn’t have to be that way. We think that there is a way for them to actually do right by their own citizens who are living in the most totalitarian system currently on Earth. But we’ll leave it at that.
Q Just for clarification, did the President announce the bit about the state sponsorship of terror and I missed it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he just said that he would make a decision — we would have a decision after the end of the trip. It was — you guys were in the room.
Q One last thing. What does movement toward denuclearization look like?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ll certainly know it when we see it, and we’re not even catching a whiff of it right now.
Q Do you think he should tweet while he’s in China? Do you see any problem with that? Is there any reason why the President shouldn’t tweet while he’s in China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President will tweet whenever he wants. That’s his way of communicating directly with the American people.
Q Including in China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, why not. Why not.
Q (Inaudible) how long ago you guys began planning the DMZ trip?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So long as he can access his Twitter account because Twitter is banned in China. So is Facebook and, of course, most of the other social media.
Q So can he access it? Logistically, can he access it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sure we’ve got the gear aboard this airplane to allow that to happen. But it is noteworthy that none of the major Western platforms for social media are even allowed to operate in China.
Q Can you give us a little more clarity on how long ago you began planning the DMZ trip? I mean, had this been in the works for months or weeks or —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t want to go into details about that at the moment, about the planning that goes into the President’s movements.
Q (Inaudible) wrote in the speech today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was a number of very talented writers working on Stephen Miller’s team, working very closely with National Security Council staff. And, of course, there was a cast of many senior officials who had eyes on that speech as it was being formulated.
So, actually, I would like to give credit but I need to ask permission of the speechwriters before I do.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As even the, I guess, head of the National Assembly said, the President was working on it right up until the end. So obviously these are very much the President’s words. He spent the entire time we had today making additional changes; this morning when we were in a hold, continuing to make changes. So these are very much his thoughts, his words, and something that he was engaged in throughout the process.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s right. We were doing edits this morning, and it’s very much in the President’s voice that speech.