Background Briefing on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official, Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
February 29, 2012

MODERATOR: Well, thank you all for joining us today. I hope you all have a copy of the statement that we released at about 9:15 this morning on the recent U.S.-DPRK bilateral discussions. Here to give you a little bit more background on where we are in those conversations and on the statement that we released, and also on the statement that was released by the North Koreans at about the same time, we have two senior Administration officials. For your records, the Senior Administration Official Number One is [Senior Administration Official One], who is [position withheld]. Senior Administration Official Number Two is [Senior Administration Official Two] who is [position withheld].

[Senior Administration Official One], our Senior Official Number One, is going to make a relatively full opening statement, and then we’ll go to your questions, and both officials will be available to answer the questions.

Why don’t we go ahead to Senior Official Number One?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much, [Moderator], and hello to everybody. I want to go a little long initially, not least because this topic is a bit complex, but also I think I can get at and anticipate some of your questions. But then I’m happy to take on whatever you want to throw at us.

And it’s a bit scripted, but I want to get this right, so let me just launch into it by saying that since taking office, the President has been consistent in signaling that we will respond positively if North Korea chooses the path of negotiation, cooperation, and denuclearization. After the really tough sanctions that were put in place by the UN Security Council and the North Koreans announced that they wanted to return to Six-Party Talks, talks that they had previously abandoned, we and our allies made clear that North Korea needed to take a number of steps that would demonstrate their seriousness of purpose. We were firm that we were only interested in credible negotiations leading to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The North couldn’t be allowed to walk away from their Six-Party commitments, to launch missiles, to further their ICBM program, to conduct a nuclear test, roll out a uranium enrichment program, to attack the ROK, and then simply expect us to come back to Six-Party Talks on their terms.

The pre-steps, as we’ve called them, that we insisted on and to which they have now agreed in their unilateral statement begin the process of walking back these provocative actions. This agreement opens the door to serious negotiations to achieve irreversible steps by North Korea toward denuclearization and to meeting their other commitments and international obligations.

Now, the President and the Secretary of State also have long made clear America’s clear concern for the welfare of the North Korean people. Following an assessment last summer of humanitarian needs in North Korea, the U.S. put forward a proposal designed to feed babies, to feed mothers, to feed the elderly - which is to say the most at-risk marginalized population of North Koreans. These are people whom the regime either cannot or has chosen not to feed. And the plan to provide nutritional assistance included monitoring requirements designed to ensure that the right type of food gets to the right people.

Until our meeting last week in Beijing, the North Koreans had declined to allow the program to go forward. They demanded large quantities of rice and grain that could be, in our view, diverted to elites or to the military. They’ve now dropped those demands and agreed to allow our program to move forward as proposed, with an understanding, as always would be the case, that further assistance would be based on verified need. This progress today is a direct result of close coordination with our key partners. Close coordination with the Republic of Korea deprived the North of the chance to drive a wedge between us or to weaken our strong alliance. As we move forward with the DPRK, we will continue to place great emphasis on the need for the North to pursue rapprochement and reconciliation with the South through sustained and substantive inter-Korean contacts.

The same is true of Japan. We have – which, of course, is North Korea’s other neighbor – we have stayed in very close touch with the Government of Japan and, as always, have forcefully raised with the North Koreans, and we did so in Beijing, the abductions issue with the North Koreans.

Now finally, kind of a note of caution about all this stuff because I really don’t want to oversell this. As positive as these very modest steps are, what they do is they merely unlock the door to the resumption, eventually, of Six-Party talks. We’ve consistently said - we’ve made clear - that we’re not interested in talks just for the sake and for the forum of talks. The next step on this process going forward from today is to work with each and every one of our Six-Party partners in order to set the stage for real and lasting progress in the multilateral phase. We have – we believe that it’s important to translate this initial sign of Pyongyang’s seriousness of purpose into substantive and meaningful negotiations on denuclearization that get at the entirety of the North’s nuclear program and secures steady progress toward complete and verifiable dismantlement of the North’s entire program. And that’s my paid political announcement at the top.

I do want to just add one quick word on a couple of topics to anticipate, and that is that I haven’t mentioned the Chinese and Russians. They’re vital here. We have now twice - in just the couple of months that the Special Representative for North Korea Policy has been in this job - been to Beijing to consult with Wu Dawei, Ambassador Wu Dawei, who is the longstanding chairman of the Six-Party process, and others including the foreign minister of the PRC, on how best to deal with the challenges we face. And Special Representative for North Korea Policy also been to Moscow to discuss these matters with Deputy Foreign Minister Morgulov and indeed have spoken with him just in recent hours.

Secondly, quickly, on the IAEA and next steps, it will be up to the North Koreans – and we were quite explicit in our understandings at Beijing – up to the North Koreans to get in touch with the IAEA to discuss next steps. We will see how long that process takes. We hope it happens relatively quickly. We’ve already alerted Director General Yukiya Amano and his staff to the steps that we are taking. And we look forward – and I think this is a very important part of the announcements made today in particular by the North – a very important part of how we will ensure that going forward North Korea abides by the unilateral undertakings that they’ve made.

Anyway, I apologize for being longwinded, but there are a lot of moving parts here. I wanted to get it all out there. I know you’ve got a lot of questions. So, [Moderator], back to you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official One]. Operator, let’s go to the first question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. To ask your question over the phone, please press * then 1. You will be announced prior to asking your question. To withdraw any question, press *2. Also, please limit to one follow-up question. Again, please press * then 1 for your question.

Our first question is from Elise Labott with CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official One]. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you can talk about the kind of sequencing of this. Like, is it – are they going to get all the food assistance at once? Do they have to take – let some inspectors in first, stop a certain amount of uranium enrichment? Is it going to be a step-by-step thing?

And then also maybe your colleague from USAID can talk about the monitoring and how you make sure it gets to the right people, how much food do they get, where it is shipped, those type of – is it going to be warehoused anywhere? How do you – the monitoring and all that. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, sure. Thanks, Elise. On sequencing, there are details that remain to be worked out. You can see that these are fairly spare unilateral statements that we’ve put forward, and the main overall point going forward is that we will be, as I think the Secretary said on the Hill today, sort of watching very carefully and measuring how North Korea comports itself in carrying forward its commitments.

On the specific issue, we, of course, would like to see IAEA monitors get back in country to Yongbyon to get eyes on both the uranium and plutonium aspects of the program at Yongbyon as soon as possible. It’s up to the North to do the first reach-out to Director General Amano and the safeguards folks in Vienna. I have no doubt that there will be some tough negotiations going forward in terms of precise sequencing. No doubt there will likely be an insistence on the North Koreans’ part on a certain amount of – let’s call it simultaneity in some of this.

So I wouldn’t look for people to be in motion right away here. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to get straight on these modalities for the IAEA to work out with the North some of these issues of which – whether it’s the right foot or the left foot that goes forward first. But again, the broader point, we’ll be watching and we’ll be measuring and we’ll be, of course, working with the North Koreans and working with the IAEA to make sure that that’s all set up properly and that that goes forward as soon as possible.

Let me turn it over to Senior Official Number Two to address the nutritional assistance bit.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks. Elise, the plan that we’ve put in front of the North Koreans is – I can just outline as follows. What we’ve proposed is the regular delivery of about 20,000 tons a month over the course of 12 months. And we’re talking about foods that would be appropriate for young children, in particular those under five or six years old, pregnant woman as well because we want to make sure we address the sort of the first 1,000 days as the Administration has wanted to focus on.

QUESTION: This is the Plumpy – this is that Nut’Plumpy stuff, right, in the bars and stuff?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We’re going to have things like corn-soy blend, we will have vegetable oil, some pulses, and then there will be probably a modest amount of the ready-to-use therapeutic foods depending upon the number of children that we see with acute malnutrition. So that will be there is necessary or be available if necessary.

But you had asked whether monitoring would come first. And in the case of the nutrition program, we have said that our partner organizations will have to be fully operational – meaning fully in place on the ground with their offices functioning – before the food will begin to arrive and will begin to be distributed, because it’s very important that we maintain – or that we can demonstrate that the program is well managed because that’s critical to maintaining the support for the program.

But if – just to be clear, if we are successful in finalizing the details that I’ve just laid out, this will be the most comprehensively monitored and managed program since the U.S. began assistance to the DPRK in the mid 1990s.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Operator, let’s go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question is from Matthew Pennington with Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hello, [Senior Administration Officials One and Two]. Thanks a lot for doing this. My first question was: In the North Korean statement, they specify that they’ve agreed to a moratorium on the uranium enrichment, but they don’t seem to allude to the plutonium program at all, which you say will also be open to monitoring. I’m just wondering why there’s – why there is that difference, and if there is any doubt at all in your mind that they’ve agreed to both aspects of that.

And also, what further hurdles need to be sort of breached before the Six-Party Talks can resume now, because it appears that they’ve met the pre-steps. So what further needs to be done? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks a lot, Matt. But anyway, two quick things: One is, on the – on their omission in their own unilateral statement of what we’ve said about the – their undertaking to confirm the disablement of the 5 megawatt reactor and the associated facilities, that is our understanding. The negotiating record’s clear on that. We did talk about that. We expect that the IAEA will also confirm the disablement of that reactor and associated facilities. I can’t speak to why they didn’t include it; these were, after all, unilateral statements that each side made, and that is an issue that we will clearly have to come back on. But there’s no doubt in our mind that they’ve agreed to that, and we will expect that that will be addressed, though I have to say that job one here is this new uranium enrichment facility that’s been revealed to the world. So that, first and foremost, is what we want to get at.

In terms of hurdles going forward to Six-Party, or why can’t we just rush right back to Beijing and sit down together and lights, cameras, action on Six-Party - look, a couple of things. One is we need to see how this goes forward. We’re going to be watching, we’re going to be measuring, we’re going to be working with the North Koreans, but it’s going to take some time for these particular unilateral undertakings – let’s call it the Leap Day Deal here – to play out and to pan out. And I think that’s important. And measuring how they implement this will be important, I think, to helping us gauge whether they and we are ready to go back to Six-Party, number one.

Number two, the truth is we’ve been around the Six-Party block before. It has a history of ups and downs, sometimes more downs than ups. You all – many of you know the history of it. We’re determined to properly prepare any Six-Party round. We’ve made no commitment, at this stage, to going back to Six-Party. And that’s because we will need any number of consultations with the other parties in the Six-Party geometry. Why? Because we need to make sure that we have a winning strategy for not simply sitting down at the table at the Diaoyutai Guesthouse in Beijing, but being able to stand up from the table with something meaningful and something lasting, a process that can deal with the concerns that all of us have with regard to North Korea. That’s going to take some time.

A final thing is we will need to be able to signal to the North Koreans in a solid fashion, an undivided fashion, what will be on the table at Six-Party, and what can’t be on the table at Six-Party. We can’t allow the same patterns of the past repeat themselves. We can’t allow wasting arguments on topics that are irrelevant to the main challenges we face. And that’s simply going to take a long time to work out.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MODERATOR: Okay, operator, let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Ai Awaji with Jiji Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. North Koreans said in their own statement that they would implement moratorium as long as the talks continue. Is that your understanding, and if not, is that acceptable?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. Another good question. The – listen, I think that that particular statement that’s included in their unilateral statement out of Pyongyang is simply a recognition of a fact. These steps – this gives me a chance to say something important about what these steps are and aren’t. These are reversible steps that they’ve committed to. There shouldn’t be any kind of doubt about that or debate about that. And the point of these steps is to show – is for the North Koreans to show that they’re serious in making good on their undertakings.

So that’s what’s – so I think when we say that – when they say that the moratorium will only be in place as long as we’re engaged in these meaningful talks, I think that that’s true of how North Korea acts and behaves under any circumstances anyway. Because these are reversible steps, they can always come around to side – to sort of, let’s say, flip a switch and go in a different direction. And that would be a missed opportunity for them, and that would obviously make it impossible to go back to Six-Party. And that would be too bad because there is a different future available to the North Koreans. We’ve made it clear to them, if they go down that path of peace, engagement, and meeting the concerns of the international community, they can have a very different future. They can be lashed up with the international community in a positive way that can be of benefit to them. And so I think that language is simply a somewhat explicit statement of what would be the case under any circumstances.

MODERATOR: Good. Operator, let’s go to the next one. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Kaho Iguminiti with NHK.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official One], thanks for doing this. Two questions. You mentioned that the North Koreans dropped their demands to want rice and grains. Can you confirm when this happened? Was this after the meeting in Beijing or during the meeting? And my second question is something about your schedule to meet with the North about the nutritional aid.


QUESTION: Do you have any dates? Yeah, thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure, sure, sure. Yeah, Kaho, I’m glad you’re on the call. Look, here’s what I’m not going to do, and I hope you all will give me a little slack here. I don’t want to get into the tick-tock of these negotiations and when particular sides said certain things, when particular sides fell off of certain things or dropped particular demands. I don’t think that’s useful. I think – I want to look forward. Rather than dissect what happened in Beijing or before, and talk about who faced down whom here, that’s sort of not the issue.

The point is we have this modest but important, as I call it, Leap Day Deal, and we now need to go forward with it. And frankly, one must give the North some credit for, so soon after the transition, reaching out to do this. So I apologize for not giving you some of that color about the negotiations and when they dropped their demands, but I’m just going to kind of steer clear of that.

Now, in terms of the schedule for the next little bit of this, which will be when Senior Official Number Two reengages with the North Koreans to finalize the nutritional assistance agreement, maybe – I guess maybe the best thing is if I could buck it over to Senior Official Number Two, and you want to say a word about that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Thanks, [Senior Administration Official One]. We’re ready to meet as soon as we can iron out the timing and the location for that next meeting. And that is not finalized at this moment, but there are no plans to delay. We’re ready to go.

MODERATOR: Good. Operator, let’s go to the next question. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question from Shaun Tandon with AFP.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this call. A bit of a broader question: This obviously comes just a couple of months after the death of Kim Jong-il. Just wanted to see what sign, if any, you saw on continuity on the North Korean side, what this – what if anything this says about the transition and how it’s going in Pyongyang.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. We spoke to this a little bit, actually, on the days we were discussing this in Beijing. I think this – well, a couple of things. One is we were sitting across from essentially the same North Korean negotiators who have been at this in some cases, for – well, for decades. In particular, First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who is a veteran North Korean negotiator and has seen lots of guys like us come and go, and many of his team are familiar faces. So the people were the same.

The way that they presented the issues was quite familiar to us. The basic arguments they used, the requests they were making of us, the rationale that they were employing – and here is the point. I think that’s important because I think it shows that the new, call it, administration in Pyongyang is picking up where the previous one left off. And that’s great; that’s good. And they’re doing it within the 100-day mourning period that’s self-declared in North Korea. So it shows that they’re interested with some alacrity to reach out, to get back to the table, and begin to try to make diplomatic progress, and I think that’s a positive sign.

So I think overall, you – what we are seeing is a sign of continuity. I think overall, the early stages of this transition have been relatively uneventful as soon as near as we can divine what’s happening inside North Korea. So that’s about as far as we could go, not being in Pyongyang, but rather being in Beijing and talking to, as I say, a fairly familiar cast of North Korean negotiators.


MODERATOR: Good. Operator, we’ll take two more. Can you cue up the next one, please?

OPERATOR: Certainly. Our next question is from William Wan with Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this, [Senior Administration Official One]. Shaun actually asked my main question just a – Un. I don’t know if you have anything to add in terms of what the – if you – if there was any talk of Un or if you got any sense of how much of the decision was made by him and how much was of this collective leadership.

And then the other question I had was just how much of this was a surprise. It seemed like there was a lot of waiting for a while, knowing you – how long it would take to get back to the table. How much of this move is a surprise in the nine weeks since the death of Kim Jong-il?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Right. Yeah. Was it a surprise? Well, in terms of to what extent was Kim Kye Gwan improvising, that’s not typically the way North Korean negotiators operate. I mean, they’re a disciplined bunch. He’s an experienced guy. He would have come with a set of redlines and instructions, actually not so much unlike us, I have to say. So our kind of working assumption is that what he brought to the table with us and where we ended up were all very much sanctioned by the center in Pyongyang.

I mean, I think they regard this – they take this stuff seriously, and at senior levels these decisions are made. I can’t tell you what their intramural decision-making process is. I don’t think anybody knows. But I would imagine that the leadership, whether collective or a regency or Kim Jong-un acting alone, not sure was very much informed, involved, engaged, and calling the shots, though Kim, I’m sure, had some tactical running room.

And remember that we went into extra innings. The thing was – we thought it would probably take just a day, the Thursday, and then…

And remember that we went into extra innings. The thing was – we thought it would probably take just a day, the Thursday, and then followed by a very substantive dinner, so sort of three sessions on the Thursday of something on the order of six and a half hours. It went over – it bled over into the Friday. We – for a couple of hours, so they had time to go back to Pyongyang and to seek further guidance, and I’m certain they would have done that.

Now, give me again your second question, the surprise question?

QUESTION: Oh, just whether – how – just that it seemed like everyone was waiting for a while, not knowing how long it would be.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible) yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t – I wouldn’t call it a surprise, and I’ll tell you why. Because we have been in touch with the North through – episodically through the New York channel since, quite literally, 24 hours after the announcement of the death of King Jong-il back in mid-December, and we were beginning to pick up signals from them in these fairly frequent communications that there was a continuity in their approach.

Obviously, there was a bit of a dramatic moment for those of us working this for the United States Government where we were signaling to them that we were available and we’ll need to get back and hoping that – and that our positions hadn’t changed, hoping we could find a way to do that. And as is always the case, one moment it was something that seemed absolutely impossible and out of the question, and then literally a day or two later, a switch had been flicked, and they were ready to go, and that was some weeks ago. So – and some were surprised, because it’s a guessing game with North Korea. Some were thinking that their transition would last a long time as the last one did 17-some years ago and that it would take a while. But as it happened, they were quite quick to make a decision to get back to the table with us.

MODERATOR: Great. Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We have time for one final question from Andrew Quinn with Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official One]. It’s Andy Quinn here. I have one for you and then a quick one for [Senior Administration Official Two], if I may. For you, I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the South Korean side of this equation. One of the preconditions that seems to have dropped off is the notion of a North Korean apology for the corvette and the island. Is that no longer a requirement, or do you feel that they’ve sort of, by their actions, made clear that they are not going to do that sort of thing anymore?

And for [Senior Administration Official Two], I was wondering, your – the needs assessment mission was almost about nine months ago, and we’ve never seen the results of what they found there. Can you tell us what their assessment was of North Korea’s food needs then and what’s the possibility or probability that those needs had changed in the intervening time since that mission went? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okie doke. Let me, Andy, take your question on South Korea, and I just do want to take the occasion to reiterate how knit up we have been. The South Koreans were co-architects of this whole pre-steps approach and plan. And I think I’ve said it already, but that we went directly from Beijing to Seoul to report, and I would point you in the direction of their statement welcoming this result as indications of how closely coordinated we are with South Korea. I think, to be totally fair to them, it’s – that’s the sort of question that you need to put to them, but I would – about the – I guess the preconditions, as you put it, though I don’t think I would accept the premise that that – it was necessarily always a precondition. But the point is South Korea has been steady, solid, and sure on the point that job one is denuclearization overall, getting at that existential threat on the peninsula, starting a process toward denuclearization, and we hope eventually a complete and irreversible dismantlement, disablement of the North Korean nuclear program. And they’ve been with us, and we’ve been joined together on that. And as far as the – your question on the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yongpyong and so forth, I really do think that’s a question that you need to put to them.

We – the final thing I’ll say is we’ve told the North – we said it more than once in Beijing, that it’s vital, it’s essential that the North takes steps to improve North-South relations. That’s got to happen before there’s any fundamental change in certainly the U.S.-DPRK relationship, and we fully expect that those steps will be taken in a context of any return to Six-Party talks.

MODERATOR: That concludes this background briefing. I’m sorry, Andy, did you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: There was the second half.

MODERATOR: I’m sorry. [Senior Administration Official Two], I apologize. I’m jumping right in on you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: That’s not a problem. Andy, you’re right. The original assessments that were done by the UN and by the NGOs and then by the U.S. Government were done last year, and so there is an issue of whether or not the information is old. But let me just say when we – when our team looked at the situation in the summer of last year, early summer of last year, we concluded that our focus should be on chronic malnutrition that’s contributing to sort of widespread stunting among the population, in particular the young children. And so that makes up the sort of the foundation of our new program. It’s a distinctly new program in that we’re looking at a nutritional focus on those populations – kids and pregnant women – who benefit the most by having an appropriate diet. So that’s where we settled on the need to do a 240,000-ton program. We felt that was the right size.

In the meantime, we’ve had the WFP/FAO crop assessment in November that’s continued to talk about chronic malnutrition, extensive chronic malnutrition among those populations I just described. And in January of this year, UNICEF did a survey along four of the provinces in North Korea and identified that over 80 percent of the children were malnourished. So I’m not saying those are definitive, but to us they are consistent with what we see as a chronic problem that we’re going to be trying to address with this nutrition program, and so we’ll continue to validate that if and when we get the program started. But we think that the foundation for our plan is pretty strong.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks very much, [Senior Administration Official Two]. Can I just jump on that while we’re still on food? Because I just want to hammer home sort of one point here. Whenever I see these headlines that this is a food-for-nukes deal, I wince, because it’s really important to be clear that the United States doesn’t link the provision of humanitarian assistance, in this case nutritional assistance, to essentially political questions, this issue of, in this case, these nuclear pre-steps. What we have – we haven’t done it, but the North has, because they, I think, take a very transactional approach to this stuff. And the one and only statement that they issued after the death of Kim Jong-Il on the U.S.-North Korea relationship, made pretty crystal clear that they saw this as a transaction and that for that for their own reasons, their own purposes, they needed to have this linkage to be able to say, I think, that they had received something for taking the steps that they’re taking. But our position on this remains clear that we don’t link the two at all.

And I don’t know, [Senior Administration Official Two], do you want to say anything else finally about that? Because that seems to be a subject that is on many minds, and I know – I just want us to be clear on it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, [Senior Administration Official One]. All I think I would say is that I’ve been working on the program, humanitarian assistance to North Korea, for basically the 15 years that we’ve – the U.S. has been engaged in this. And in this case, we have – we’ve made a very concerted effort to keep the negotiations very separate. Bob King and I have always engaged independently of any other discussions, and we’ve always focused on what terms we need to ensure that the program addresses the needs of the targeted groups and is something that we can justify and defend here in the United States.

MODERATOR: Very good. I think that concludes this background briefing.

PRN: 2012/310