Daily Press Briefing - January 3, 2017

John Kirby
Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 3, 2017



TRANSCRIPT:

2:09 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody, and Happy New Year to you. Hope everybody had a good holiday season, a chance to take a break. My break, my gift to you for the New Year, is that I do not have an opening statement. So we will get right after it.

Go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: I’d like to start on North Korea. Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s address, said that North Korea was in preparations for doing an ICBM test, were reaching the final stage.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wondered if you had any reaction to that and if you’ve any indication that a – that test is – a missile test of some sort is in the works.

MR KIRBY: Well, as I think you know, generally we don’t talk about intelligence matters or intelligence assessments with respect to specifics about the capabilities that they continue to pursue both on the ballistic missile side and, of course, on the nuclear side. So I’m not going to get into characterizing or confirming the veracity of the comments in his New Year’s speech.

What I will do though is, as we have before, continue to call on the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric that threaten international peace and stability. And we want them to make the strategic choice to fulfill their international obligations and commitments and return, frankly, to the Six-Party Talk process.

There have been multiple UN Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit North Korea launches using ballistic missile technology. They are still in effect. And we continue to call on all states to use every available channel and means of influence to likewise make clear to the DPRK and its enablers that launches using ballistic missile technology are unacceptable, and of course, also to take steps to show and to prove that there are consequences to this unlawful conduct.

So we’re certainly aware of what he said. We’re obviously aware of the capabilities they continue to pursue. And that’s why the United States continues to work with the international community to hold Pyongyang to account for the pursuit of these capabilities and for the instability that they are contributing to.

I would remind that the sanctions regime put in place recently is the most stringent over the last two decades and that they are being implemented. So I guess we’re just going to have to – we’re going to have to, obviously, watch this going forward. But the international community is clearly galvanized like it hasn’t been before.

QUESTION: Do you have any way to convey these ideas directly to North Korea at this point?

MR KIRBY: Well, you know we don’t have direct diplomatic relations with the North. But frankly, I mean, in a sense, I’m – we’re doing it now, as we do when we talk about this publicly. And we certainly have made these exact concerns and these exact statements well known and clear through the UN, though the UN and the UN Security Council.

QUESTION: Kirby, can I follow up on that one? So Blinken is meeting with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea.

MR KIRBY: Later this week, yes.

QUESTION: Those talks were already scheduled before, before the statement.

MR KIRBY: Yes.

QUESTION: But is there anything that this – this – is there anything you can do or the way the discussion could go given this latest statement?

MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, first of all, Lesley, I – I think it’s safe to assume that North Korea will be on the agenda in these trilateral talks. And this is, I think, the sixth round of these deputy foreign minister trilateral talks, and the deputy is very much looking forward to it. No question that tensions on the Korean Peninsula will be a topic of discussion. Where that’s going to take us, what’s going to be said, especially in light of Kim Jong-un’s speech, I don’t know. I can tell you that we’ll obviously be providing a readout of the discussion. And so when it happens on Thursday after it’s over, we’ll be happy to do that.

QUESTION: And then what is the U.S. assessment? I know you say you don’t talk about intelligence, but what if he’s lying? I mean, what if this is just an empty – empty threat? What is your assessment? I mean, is he close to – is this the last stage, or he is just --

MR KIRBY: I think the intel – my understanding is that – again, we don’t talk about intelligence issues, so that’s one. Number two, we do continue to believe that he continues to pursue both nuclear and ballistic missile technologies. I mean, that’s pretty apparent. We do not believe that he, at this point in time, has the capability to tip one of these with a nuclear warhead. That’s as far as I’m going to go in terms of assessing. But we do know that he continues to want to have those capabilities and he continues – the programs continue to march in that direction, which is why, quite frankly, that the whole international community is as galvanized as it is to try to deter and to stop that.

Now, yes, there’s a very stringent sanctions regime in place; no question about that. Sanctions take a long time to work; we know that. Sanctions are only as good as they are enforced, and in past sanctions regimes it hasn’t always been uniformly enforced. China has said they will enforce these, and that’s our expectation that they will, that they will do that.

I will also remind that we also – we – that there is a military component to the Asia Pacific rebalance that the United States has pursued, and we have the majority of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific region. We’ve moved special radars into place. We have missile defense capabilities of our own in that part of the world. So it’s not as if – it’s not as if we’re relying solely on simply sanctions regimes to exert the proper pressure on Pyongyang. We’ve obviously taken and will continue to take the kinds of measures that we believe is important for our own national defense.

QUESTION: And since the statement on Sunday, has there been any discussions with China in the meantime about – about this?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any discussions with China to read out with respect to this particular speech, but if that changes we can let you know.

QUESTION: John, can we move on?

QUESTION: John, the apparent --

MR KIRBY: We’ll stay on --

QUESTION: -- apparent determination --

MR KIRBY: I think we’re staying on North Korea. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. The apparent determination of Kim Jong-un to pursue the ICBM in despite of what you described as a stringent sanctions regime, is that because the sanctions didn’t convince him or because they haven’t been adequately enforced?

MR KIRBY: I can’t get inside his head and tell you what --

QUESTION: But do you feel they’ve been adequately enforced?

MR KIRBY: They are being enforced. And we’re – what I would say is we’re constantly monitoring the enforcement across the international community. I can’t stand here and tell you that they’re being perfectly enforced by every single nation, but the general sense is that they are being implemented. It is a kind of thing that constantly needs to be evaluated, monitored, and discussed at the UN, and I know that it is. For our part, we certainly are and we expect every other nation to do the same.

What’s – what decision matrix Kim Jong-un is using to continue to explore this technology, I really can’t speak to. But what I can speak to is as he continues to pursue those, the international community is going to continue to stay galvanized against that, because it’s not just destabilizing for the peninsula; it’s destabilizing for the region and the world.

QUESTION: But if they are being adequately enforced and it hasn’t stopped him, then you need stronger sanctions or another option.

MR KIRBY: Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of additional sanctions. In fact, in light of the most recent test, there were discussions at the UN. And I’ve certainly – and first of all, let’s not – let’s not get ahead of where we are. We’ve seen a speech and we’ve seen some rhetoric. I’m not in a position to say one way or another that that leads to something imminent right now, so we need to stay where we are, where things are. And we know that he continues to pursue this, so we will certainly continue to explore options to increase, if needed, the international pressure on Pyongyang.

The second thing I’d say is that – and you know this – sanctions take time. He has obviously proven impervious to sanction pressure in the past because he continues to explore these capabilities. But it doesn’t mean that, at least for the United States’ part, that we’re simply relying on sanctions and sanctions alone. As I said, there is a robust U.S. military presence in the Pacific region, in the north Pacific region specifically. We have ironclad security commitments there on the peninsula with Republic of Korea allies that we take very, very seriously. So I mean, it’s – the entire U.S. Government here is rightly, as we should be, focused on this growing threat.

QUESTION: You called for a return to Six-Party Talks. Obviously, the Iran nuclear deal came out of multilateral talks, but parallel to that, as we now know, the United States engaged directly with Iran. And it was seen by many outside observers that the bilateral ties between Iran and the United States were what bore fruit and brought around the P5+1 deal for the JCPOA. Has there been any discussion about direct contacts between Washington and Pyongyang on this issue?

MR KIRBY: I would say, just in answer to that, that our focus continues to be on returning to the Six-Party process.

I’ll go to --

QUESTION: Six-Party Talks?

MR KIRBY: You want to go to that? And then I’ll go to you, James. Are you still on North Korea?

QUESTION: I’m on North Korea. Yeah.

MR KIRBY: Okay. So Steve and then James.

QUESTION: Yeah. Following up on Six-Party Talks, you mentioned – you called for them to return to that process. Is that without preconditions?

MR KIRBY: It has always been. I mean, we want them to return. And the – but the condition is that they have to commit to a verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula. That’s always been the case, if that’s what you mean by preconditions. Nothing’s changed in that regard. They’ve got to be able to commit to denuclearization of the peninsula, and they have proven, obviously, unwilling to do that and unwilling to return to the process.

QUESTION: Just a few different categories on this subject, if you would. First, is it the view of the department that China is doing all it can do to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?

MR KIRBY: Chinese officials have made clear that they intend to implement the resolution, and we’re engaged with an ongoing dialogue with them to that end, as well as our allies and our partners, on how to best curtail the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear ballistic missile and proliferation programs.

QUESTION: I didn’t ask if it is the view of the Department that China is doing everything it can to comply with the resolution. I asked if it is the view of this Department that China is doing all it can do.

MR KIRBY: No, I understand the question. I’ll leave my answer as it is.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Is it fair to say that China is doing nothing on the North Korean problem --

MR KIRBY: No, I would --

QUESTION: -- as the president-elect tweeted?

MR KIRBY: I would not – we would not agree with that assessment.

QUESTION: The Chinese foreign ministry said today, apparently in response to the president-elect’s tweet, that, “We hope all sides can refrain from speaking or doing anything that can aggravate the situation.” Is it the view of the Department that the president-elect’s tweets are, in fact, aggravating the situation?

MR KIRBY: We’re not taking a position on the president-elect’s tweets with this or any other issue. What we are concerning ourselves with, James, is continuing to see international pressure being applied to Pyongyang to make the right decisions. And as I said, the international community is galvanized like it’s never been before. Does that mean that every country is implementing every single one of the sanctions that are in place on any or every given day? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to see that happen. And it doesn’t mean that the sanctions that are being implemented are, in fact, still the most stringent that have been in place in the last 20 years.

So it is – what I will say about China is that it is clear that they are absolutely concerned about the direction that Pyongyang is taking, and one shouldn’t be surprised by that. I mean, the DPRK is a southern neighbor and they share a border. They have been concerned about sanctions in the past because their southern provinces do direct business in North Korea. But they did sign up to these very robust sanctions, and they have publicly committed to implementing those sanctions, and that’s going to be our expectation going forward.

QUESTION: Two last questions: To your knowledge, has any official inside the Obama Administration, at any point, taken any steps to initiate direct diplomacy with North Korea?

MR KIRBY: Not to my knowledge, James.

QUESTION: Lastly, is it the view of the department that – or let me rephrase that. Does the Secretary of State proceed from the assumption that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor?

MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) Does the Secretary of State presume that --

QUESTION: Proceed from the assumption that in attempting to deal with this regime in whatever mechanisms we use, that he is dealing with a rational actor?

MR KIRBY: It is – it’s difficult when you look at the decisions that he is making, the programs that he is pursuing in the face of international will against him – it’s difficult to understand, as I said to Dave, the rationale in making those decisions and in pursuing those programs, which are clearly coming at the expense of his own people, clearly coming at the expense of security and stability around him and his own citizens and in the region.

But I don’t believe that we are pursuing the options that we are pursuing based on a litmus test or a view or a personal assessment of his psychology and the degree to which he’s rational on any given day. We are, however, pursuing these options based squarely on what we see in his actions. It’s hard to get inside his head, but it’s pretty easy to see from his actions – I mean, this is a man, mind you, that executes his own officials using antiaircraft gunnery.

QUESTION: And what does that tell you?

MR KIRBY: It tells me that – and I think it tells the world that – he is – that he is utterly brutal and continues to rule with an iron fist. And because of what you can gather from his actions and the brutality, obviously, that he’s capable of and continues to demonstrate that we have to take him seriously when he issues threats, and we do. We always do.

So I know I didn’t perfectly answer your question, because I didn’t – it’s not that we’re looking at this from a psychological perspective, but we certainly are judging him based on his actions, and his actions bespeak utter brutality. And we have to assume that that is the basis of the decisions that – that that is at least a part of the basis of his decisions going forward.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

QUESTION: Yeah. Please.

QUESTION: Sorry, North Korea.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MR KIRBY: Are we done with --

QUESTION: A different thing.

MR KIRBY: Are we done with Korea?

QUESTION: Just one more.

MR KIRBY: Okay.

QUESTION: So has this recent statement accelerated anything, as far as THAAD deployment?

MR KIRBY: I have no operational decisions to read out to you, one way or another. I would refer you to my counterparts at the Defense Department to speak specifically to that, because I’m just not – I’m not really informed enough to know where the discussions are on THAAD. You’d have to talk to the Pentagon.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Still on Korea? You have one more?

QUESTION: John, you mentioned that the U.S. doesn’t believe that North Korea has the capability to --

MR KIRBY: To tip one.

QUESTION: -- put a nuclear warhead on one of its missiles.

MR KIRBY: To tip one. Yeah.

QUESTION: Does that mean any kind of missile, a short-range missile, a mid-range?

MR KIRBY: I think I’m just going to leave it at that. I’m going to leave my statement where it was.

Yeah, Said.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks. I want to go the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: Since we haven’t had a chance to discuss the Secretary’s speech last week, for which you’ve gotten a lot of flak. But I want to ask you, absent any mechanism to --

MR KIRBY: I would also say, Said, there’s been an awful lot of international support for the Secretary’s comments, including from Arab countries.

QUESTION: That’s true. That’s true. A lot of international support.

MR KIRBY: So certainly, in your statement, I know there’s been some criticism. There’s been an awful lot of international support.

QUESTION: I understand. And I think there’s been overwhelmingly international support, but we’re talking about this town. This town has been very scarce in giving you the kind of support that you --

MR KIRBY: Well, again, I don’t know that I’d agree with that, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Fine. Of course, the speech came in the aftermath of Resolution 2334, which said that the settlements were illegal and so on. But I reviewed all the settlements that preceded it, which is 446, 452, 465, 478, and they are all – they all had much stronger language, but the reasons the settlements went unabated and with such vigor is the fact that there was no mechanism. So would you recommend – either would you take some steps now in the remaining time that this Administration has, let’s say between now and the 20th, to perhaps introduce a mechanism to make these – to make good on these UN resolutions? Or would you recommend to the coming administration – suggest a roadmap on how you can come up with the kind of mechanism to give teeth to these resolutions?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any future actions to read out or to discuss on this issue. The Secretary’s speech, which came on the heels of the resolution, was very clear about the concerns that we have about the viability of a two-state solution. And he laid out principles in there in that speech about how – a framework, if you will – about how we can better achieve a two-state solution. But specifically beyond that, I don’t have anything to discuss with you.

QUESTION: Well, you mentioned that the point that he made – and he made six clear points and so on, and in fact they probably find their root in the six points that were made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009. The point is, absent any mechanism or absent the will and the desire to sort of say if you don’t do this, we will do this, as introducing sanctions, whether it’s against Russia or Iran or Iraq and so on – absent that kind of mechanism, what good – the – first, the pronouncements of these principles are or even issuing resolutions at the United Nations is?

MR KIRBY: Well, Said, I think the resolution speaks for itself and I think the Secretary’s comments also speak for themselves, I mean, in terms of our continued deep concern about the viability of a two-state solution. I don’t – I understand your question. I don’t have any additional actions to speak to today. I think we’re all aware about the calendar and all aware that we’re not going to see a two-state solution achieved in the next three weeks. I think everybody recognizes that. And the next administration will have to make decisions and move forward in the way they deem fit.

But the President and the Secretary believed it was important to make clear our concern because we want to see peace there. We – it was important for us to lay out – for the Secretary – excuse me – to lay out what he believed were the proper principles for trying to get there. So I think – I know this isn’t a perfect answer to your question, but I think that’s the best way to leave it.

QUESTION: One last question on this, if I may. Now, we know that the Secretary has always been quite vigorous in pursuing his own initiatives and so on. Are we likely to see anything on his part --

MR KIRBY: The Secretary pursues the President’s initiatives in foreign policy.

QUESTION: Absolutely. I’m saying but also the Secretary has in implementing U.S. diplomacy and U.S. vision. So are we likely to see added impetus, let’s say, over the next couple of weeks to see the Secretary perhaps go to this peace conference in France, if it takes place, and so on, or would you have new ideas and so on to discuss at the – maybe at the UN or other forums?

MR KIRBY: Well, without getting ahead of the Secretary’s schedule or his specific intentions on this or any other issue, I said and I’ve said many times in the last several weeks that until he is no longer Secretary of State, this is an issue that’s going to be important to him and that he is not going to stop focusing on. Last week, you saw that, I think, very clearly and in a very eloquent speech about our concerns over the situation. So I’m not going to speculate one way or another about how he’s going to spend each of the days that he has left in office on this or any other issue, but I can tell you, because I’m confident what I said weeks ago, that until he is no longer in this seat, this will be something that he continues to work.

Dave, did you have something?

QUESTION: Well, that answered my question on Paris.

MR KIRBY: That was your question?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: Okay.

All right. Go ahead.

QUESTION: My question is about President Hollande’s visit to Erbil yesterday, and it’s got two parts. First part: The visit was very cordial and President Hollande met with President Barzani and they – President Barzani took the French president to the front lines. He – President Hollande praised the Peshmerga and their fight against Daesh, promised them continued – and promised them continued support. Do you have any comment on this visit of President Hollande?

MR KIRBY: We typically don’t comment on the travel of foreign leaders of other countries. I mean, what I can say is we welcome France’s contributions as part of the coalition to counter Daesh and certainly welcome the continued support that has been voiced by President Hollande for the fight against Daesh there in the region.

QUESTION: Okay. And the second part: In these meetings, the Kurdish leadership stressed the enormity of the burden that they bear in hosting 1.8 million displaced people. And President Hollande himself arrived with 38 tons of aid in his plane. Is the U.S. looking into this issue perhaps?

MR KIRBY: Into the --

QUESTION: The issue of the burden that the Kurdistan region bears because it has – it’s supporting 1.8 million displaced people from other parts of Iraq.

MR KIRBY: It’s not that we are looking into it. We have been concerned with this issue for a long, long time. We continue to work closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government in helping to facilitate the well-being of those displaced people – the people that were displaced internally by Daesh. We also work with other Iraqi provincial governments and the Government of Iraq in Baghdad to better foster the conditions that will allow these people to return home safely eventually.

It’s part of the – it’s all part of the larger effort – I got you, just let me finish, I’m just getting warmed up here – it’s all part of the larger effort to deal with this problem. And we’re mindful of the toll that displaced people do have on local economies and local infrastructure. All of us can do more. I would also remind that the United States has provided more than a billion dollars in humanitarian aid since 2014 alone. We’ve also rallied the international community, other nations, helping secure pledges just this summer of over $2 billion from partners for humanitarian assistance, stabilization, demining, all in the run-up to the Mosul operation.

And we’re actively working with our humanitarian partners, nongovernmental agencies to prepare for the immediate shelter needs of a large-scale displacement or continued large-scale displacements. And just as of late November, approximately 12,200 is the number I’m given here of shelter plots across eight sites remain ready to receive households that were displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas with additional plots now under construction, all with U.S. help and assistance.

So it’s not as if we’re just now looking into this. This is something that we have long been concerned with since the very beginning of coalition operations against Daesh, okay?

QUESTION: But it sounds like despite the U.S. generosity and help with this, it’s not really enough, that more is required, even.

MR KIRBY: As I said, I think, when we addressed this issue more specifically about Mosul not long ago, we’re always analyzing, always assessing, and always willing to contribute more if more is needed. That’s part of – part and parcel of the discussions that we are actively having with local, regional, and national government figures there in Iraq.

Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: Recently, there was a dialogue held between Russia, China, and Pakistan on Afghanistan – last week. Does the U.S. welcome this dialogue or what are your thoughts about it?

MR KIRBY: I mean, look, we – I’ll say what we welcome is any international effort to help Afghanistan become secure and more prosperous. And we continue to support, as we always have, an Afghan-led reconciliation process. We still believe that’s the right way to go here going forward. That hasn’t changed. And our support for President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah remains steadfast.

But nation-states and Afghanistan as a nation-state has every right and every responsibility, quite frankly, for the betterment of their own people to have, whether it’s multilateral or bilateral, discussions with neighboring nations and nations that aren’t neighboring that are interested in the same goals that we are.

QUESTION: So you are saying that without Afghan Government being present there at the discussion – and they did lodge a protest about it as well, their foreign minister, that --

MR KIRBY: I wasn’t – we obviously weren’t there either, so I can’t speak to the specifics of this meeting. But to the degree that countries are meeting to discuss the same secure, safe, prosperous Afghanistan that we all want to see and they can come up with ideas to pursue that, in keeping with mandates from the international community and in particular NATO, those can be – they could be constructive.

QUESTION: One of those efforts with regard to bringing peace in Afghanistan is about the recent deal that the government made with Hekmatyar’s party. And according to some report, the government has sent a letter to the United Nations to remove his name from the terrorist list. What is the U.S. Government’s stance going to be about removing his name from the --

MR KIRBY: Well, sanctions --

QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to be okay?

MR KIRBY: Sanctions committee consultations are confidential and we don’t talk about them, so I have nothing to provide you on that.

Lalit.

QUESTION: Do you know or do you have some readout about Secretary call or talk with Pakistan’s Finance Minister Dar on Indus Water Treaty?

MR KIRBY: I can confirm that he did speak on the 29th of December with Finance Minister Dar. I’m not going to read that out in any great detail. The Indus Waters Treaty has served, I think as you know, as a model for peaceful cooperation between India and Pakistan for now 50 years. We encourage, as we have in the past, India and Pakistan to work together to resolve any differences.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. offered to mediate on this issue between India and Pakistan? As you know, there are some disputes between the two countries on this issue.

MR KIRBY: As I said, we encourage India and Pakistan to work together bilaterally to resolve their differences.

QUESTION: Has he talked to the Indians also on this issue?

MR KIRBY: We’re in regular communication with the Indian and Pakistani governments on a wide range of issues. I just don’t have any more details for you.

QUESTION: But not at his level, right?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any more detail for you.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: I’ve got a small question on the same thing.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: China recently invited India to be a part of the CPEC. What is the U.S. recommendation or suggestion to India on this issue?

MR KIRBY: This is an issue between India and China. I don’t have a U.S. reaction to that right now.

Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I have a quick question on Egypt --

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- regarding Ahmed Maher. He is the cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement. He was arrested a couple years ago and was supposed to be released today. There has been no word about his release. I wonder if you have any comment on that or if you would urge the Egyptian authorities to release him.

MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything for you on that, Said. We’ll have to take that question and get back to you. I’m just not prepared for that.

QUESTION: Okay, and the other thing is – since we are on human rights – yesterday, the UN Human Rights Council was formed and elected Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China, Cuba, Iraq, Qatar, Burundi, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirate to the council. I guess you know they pick members on the basis – on the merits of their own record of human rights. Do you have any comment on that?

MR KIRBY: I think I would just – broadly speaking, we’re pleased to be a member to the UN Human Rights Council after completing a mandatory year off in 2016. Since joining it, we’ve made remarkable strides toward helping the council realize its full potential, working in partnership with a wide range of member-states, and often in spite of council members that have poor human rights records.

We’re proud of our successes at the Human Rights Council since we joined the body, including the creation of commissions of inquiry for Syria, North Korea, and Burundi; for country-specific resolutions on Sri Lanka, Iran, and Burma – ground-breaking resolutions that were focused on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of assembly and association; and the first ever resolution in the UN system which created an independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

So we’re going to look forward to continuing to work with other members of the council to strengthen and protect human rights around the world. And we’re not bashful about calling it like we see it when it comes to human rights violators wherever they sit.

Okay. Steve.

QUESTION: Yes, the deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific fleet in Manila has announced plans to hold joint military exercises with Philippines navy, which I think mostly consists of a couple of old U.S. Coast Guard boats at this point. In light of the security treaty between the United States and the Philippines, does the U.S. welcome this sort of cooperation between the Philippines and Russia?

MR KIRBY: The first thing I would say is that the defense relationship between the United States and the Philippines remains very, very strong. We do have security commitments, alliance commitments that we take very, very seriously. And that defense cooperation has always been provided at the request of Philippine administrations, so our overall mil-to-mil relations remain robust, they remain multifaceted, and that’s the way we want to see it continue.

I think I’d let the Philippine Government and the Russian Government speak to the degree of their bilateral defense relations and how that is taking shape. I’ve said many times – and this is a good example of it – that foreign relations aren’t binary. Right? And these choices that countries have to make are not binary choices, and every nation-state has the right to pursue bilateral relations of its own choosing. And so again, I would leave it to both of their governments to discuss it. What it – what I can promise you is that it won’t affect how we view the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Philippines.

Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on Senator Cardin’s letter to the Secretary a few weeks ago about the request to formally apologize to State Department personnel who were fired during the “lavender scare” in the 1950s. Any update on that?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update specifically for you on a response to the senator. We are – we will, of course, respond to the senator appropriately about that. Look, we all recognize that this was a troubled part of our history here at the State Department, but beyond that I don’t have a specific update for you. And when we do and when we can speak to it, we’ll let you know.

Michel.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Syria? Any comment on the so-called ceasefire there and the preparations --

MR KIRBY: Well, you said it best – “so-called,” right? I mean, look, as before, we wanted to see this one succeed because we think it’s important to get back to political talks – UN-led political talks. And you’re not going to be able to do that if bombs continue to be dropped on the opposition. So we would have liked to have seen this latest ceasefire be a success.

As far as I know, at least before coming out here, there are areas where it does appear to be holding and there are areas where it doesn’t. That is not at all atypical of what we’ve seen in the past with prior ceasefire/cessation of hostilities attempts, whether we were involved with those announcements or not, and we weren’t always involved with every one in the past. But we sadly have seen this one begin to unravel pretty much as quickly as they have unraveled in the past.

QUESTION: And is there any coordination with the Russians regarding the Astana talks?

MR KIRBY: Not that I’m --

QUESTION: Did the Secretary talk to --

MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: -- Mr. Lavrov?

MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: Has he spoken with him on any issue related to Syria --

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any recent --

QUESTION: -- in the last few days?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any recent discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov to read out.

QUESTION: Okay. Are you – I mean, seeing that Mr. Lavrov was the person to call for tit-for-tat with the expulsion of the Russian diplomats – it was Mr. Lavrov that called for a tit-for-tat and it was the Russian president that actually held back. You have any comment on that? I mean, considering that --

MR KIRBY: I’ve seen press reporting on that, Said, but I can’t confirm the veracity of the --

QUESTION: Can you – you cannot confirm that he had, in fact, wanted --

MR KIRBY: -- internal Russian deliberations. Hmm?

QUESTION: He – you don’t have any confirmation that he, in fact, wanted American diplomats to be expelled?

MR KIRBY: No, I can’t confirm what the foreign minister’s views were about the President’s decisions last week. We all saw President Putin’s statement, which you have to assume speaks for the Russian Government. What deliberations and discussions they had internally prior to the – President Putin issuing his statement, I simply have no idea.

QUESTION: And there has been no conversation between the Secretary and the foreign minister on the issue of the diplomats?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have – let me just make sure that I’m checking this correctly here. No, I don’t have any recent calls with Foreign Minister Lavrov to read out with respect to the President’s decisions last week.

We’ll take the last one. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On Syria. Do you have any information about an airstrike that happened today in the north of Syria in Idlib province? The Fateh al-Sham Front is saying that 20 people were killed.

MR KIRBY: I’ve seen some very early press reporting on that. I don’t have any update for you. I was just apprised of that myself just before coming out here. I would encourage you to reach out to my Defense Department colleagues for more information on that, okay?

QUESTION: Fateh al-Sham is the same as Nusrah, correct? So their claim – you don’t take their claims?

MR KIRBY: Don’t take what claims?

QUESTION: I mean, they are the ones that claimed 20 people were killed. You do understand that --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, no, I know that and I know who they are and --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: -- al-Nusrah is how we still refer to them. I just don’t have any specific information on this, and again, I think the Defense Department is probably better to speak to it than me.

Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:49 p.m.)

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